SINGAPORE: An Indonesian maid who was convicted of stealing S$34,000 worth of items from Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family was acquitted by the High Court on Friday (Sep 4).
Ms Parti Liyani, 46, was sentenced in March 2019 to two years and two months' jail after a district judge convicted her of three counts of theft in dwelling and one charge of theft as a servant.
On Friday, Justice Chan Seng Onn overturned the convictions and acquitted Ms Parti of all charges, and said that the prosecution had failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
"Coupled with the existence of an improper motive by members of the Liew family for mounting the allegations against Ms Parti, I find that the convictions against Ms Parti are unsafe and accordingly acquit her of all the charges," Justice Chan said in his judgment on Friday.
READ: Maid found guilty of stealing S$30,000 worth of items from Changi Airport Group chairman’s family
The court heard that Ms Parti was employed by Mr Liew Mun Leong from March 2007 until her employment was terminated on Oct 28, 2016 due to suspicions that she had been stealing from members of the family.
She was given about two hours to pack up her belongings and was sent home.
While packing her belongings, she threatened to lodge a report with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) about how she had been instructed to clean the home and office of Mr Liew Mun Leong’s son Karl on multiple occasions, in addition to her employer’s house.
This was in contravention of certain MOM regulations, the court heard.
Two days later, Mr Liew Mun Leong and his son lodged a police report against Ms Parti. They accused her of stealing items from the family, including 115 pieces of clothing, a DVD player, a luxury watch, two iPhones, a Prada bag, two Longchamp bags and Gucci sunglasses, among other items.
She was arrested at Changi Airport on Dec 2, 2016 upon her return to Singapore to seek employment.
READ: Changi Airport Group chairman suspected maid of stealing for years, but tolerated her behaviour
There was “ample basis” for Ms Parti to file a complaint to MOM, Justice Chan said, given that she had been asked to clean Mr Karl Liew's residence and office, besides her employer's home.
“In my judgment, there is reason to believe that the Liew family, upon realising her unhappiness, took the pre-emptive first step to terminate her employment suddenly without giving her sufficient time to pack, in the hope that Ms Parti would not use the time to make a complaint to MOM,” Justice Chan added.
"Once she made express her desire to complain to MOM after her sudden termination on Oct 28, 2016, the Liew family followed up with the police report to ensure her return would be prevented.
"In my view, the Liew family might not have made a police report had Ms Parti not made her express threat on Oct 28, 2016 to report the matter to MOM."
Due to the seriousness of the potential MOM complaint, the judge said there was reason to believe that the family would be “very concerned” if she proceeded with the report.
Ms Parti’s lawyer Anil Balchandani, who took the case pro-bono, has "sufficiently demonstrated an underlying factual basis in support of its allegation of an improper motive" on the part of Mr Liew Mun Leong and his son, the High Court judge said.
Mr Balchandani told the court the Liew family had "falsely alleged" that Ms Parti was a thief in a bid to prevent her from returning to Singapore and "thereby stymie her future attempt" to make a formal report to MOM about her illegal deployment.
SHOWED NO INTEREST IN BOXES
During the two hours that she was given to pack her belongings, Ms Parti was given jumbo boxes to put her items to be shipped to her address.
But before two of the boxes could be sealed by her, she was told that her time was up and that she had to leave. The two boxes were sealed by two drivers who worked for the Liew family.
After she left for Indonesia, a member of the family told Mr Karl Liew about her suspicion that Ms Parti might have stolen from them, and said they should not ship the boxes to her because there may be illegal items in them.
The family members opened the boxes and found items that they claimed belonged to them. Ms Parti said some of the items were purchased by her or given to her, and that some items were also discarded and found by her.
Some of the items that she was charged with stealing were also not packed by her into the three jumbo boxes, she said.
The court was told that despite Ms Parti returning to Indonesia for more than a month, she "never showed any interest" in finding out why she had not received the boxes.
Her reason for returning to Singapore was to find future employment, rather than enquire on the boxes, the court heard.
BREAK IN CHAIN OF CUSTODY OF EVIDENCE
Regarding the chain of custody of evidence, the High Court judge found that there was a delay in the police photographing and seizing the items and that the Liews had mishandled them for daily use.
After Ms Parti left, the family spent about two hours taking out and sorting through the items, during which they discovered items allegedly belonging to the family. A 21-second video was recorded of the items that they had taken out.
Mr Liew Mun Leong's wife later testified that she put Ms Parti’s belongings back into the boxes and took out the family’s belongings for daily use.
There was a “real possibility of a mix up of items” and reasonable doubt that the items were not accurately documented in photographs taken by police officers five weeks later.
Although a police report was made on Oct 30, 2016, Investigation Officer Tang Ru Long did not attend or view the scene of the offences until about five weeks later on Dec 3, 2016, a day after Ms Parti returned to Singapore and was arrested.
IO Tang had told the Liew family that they were free to use the items that were found in the jumbo boxes, save for discarding the said items, the court was told.
"The items in the three jumbo boxes which were the subject of the charges were not personally seized or taken into custody by IO Tang as he did not wish to result in the 're-victimising' of the complainants," the judgment read.
"The complainants were allowed to use the items because they were 'daily use items'."
This delay, coupled with the mishandling of items by the complainants, created a "clear break in the chain of custody of evidence" from their discovery on Oct 29, 2016 to Dec 3, 2016, when the photographs of the exhibits were taken by police.
"Accordingly, I find that Ms Parti’s conviction in relation to a number of the items allegedly found in the three jumbo boxes cannot stand," said Justice Chan.
LACKING IN CREDIBILITY
Justice Chan also noted that Mr Karl Liew was "a witness who was not only lacking in credibility but also did not take the process of giving testimony seriously”.
He was only able to identify 34 items from the video footage and alleged that some smaller-sized female clothing found among the items were his.
His testimony on his valuation of the alleged stolen items was also “questionable and evidences a lack of credibility”, the High Court judge added.
For example, Mr Karl Liew claimed that a damaged Gerald Genta watch was worth S$25,000 based on his "impression", adding that it was of sentimental value because his father had given it to him.
However, Mr Liew Mun Leong testified that the watch was just another watch he had given to his son, and that his son "had never told him" that the watch was sentimental to him.
The district judge eventually found that the value of the watch was overestimated at S$25,000, and amended its value to S$10,000.
"(Mr Karl Liew's) evidence was internally inconsistent and contradicted by the other witnesses," Justice Chan said.
"(His) testimony that he had in his possession multiple female items that Ms Parti allegedly stole from him is also highly suspect.
"It is unclear how the (district) judge could have arrived at the conclusion that this was a result of Karl’s 'inability to recall if some items had ever been in his possession', especially when some of the items were observed by the (district) judge to be 'smaller-sized female clothing' and wallets that 'did not appear to be men’s wallets."
He said the district judge's assessment of Mr Karl Liew to be "largely credible" was "plainly wrong and against the weight of the evidence".
Many items that were allegedly stolen by Ms Parti also display some form of "dysfunctionality", Justice Chan said, adding that it is “rather unusual” for her to mostly steal items that appeared to be spoilt, broken or lacking in value to the alleged owners.
In allowing Ms Parti's appeal, he said the proper handling of evidence by the police, and the recording of allegedly stolen items were "crucial in order to preserve the chain of custody of the items".