SINGAPORE: There were aspects of the case against Parti Liyani that could have been handled better by the police and the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), but both had reason to investigate and prosecute the former Indonesian maid for theft.
This was the view of Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who was delivering a ministerial statement on Ms Parti’s case in Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 4).
Ms Parti was convicted in March last year of stealing S$34,000 from ex-Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family, but the conviction was overturned by the High Court on Sep 4.
In Justice Chan Seng Onn's judgment, the judge outlined several issues with the conviction findings and how the case was handled.
Mr Shanmugam said on Wednesday that police should have visited Mr Liew’s home soon after a report was made, and that police agree that it should have shown Ms Parti colour photos throughout the investigation instead of black-and-white ones.
According to Mr Shanmugam, AGC is developing guidelines on the valuation of items that are the subject of property offences. In Ms Parti’s case, evidence on this came from the Liews’ estimates. AGC will also improve how it conducts trial preparation.
But Mr Shanmugam said the police, based on what it knew, had a case to investigate. AGC had decided to charge Ms Parti because there was sufficient evidence, and that it was in the public interest to do so, he added.
Mr Liew lodged a police report against Ms Parti at 3.54pm on Oct 30, 2016.
The report stated that over the years, the family’s belongings had gone missing, and that they suspected Ms Parti. The report added that they terminated her employment two days before, and had found some of their items packed in three of her boxes.
“Theft is an arrestable offence,” Mr Shanmugam said. “Police needed to trace Ms Liyani to investigate further. Where there is a reason to suspect that an arrestable offence has been committed, police will try to find the alleged offender. And if appropriate, arrest the person.”
Initial investigations showed that Ms Parti had left Singapore on Oct 28, 2016. However, on Dec 2, 2016, Ms Parti was arrested at the airport after she returned to Singapore to, according to what she said at the time, sightsee and visit a friend.
On Dec 3, 2016, police visited the home of Mr Liew’s son Karl, where one of the boxes had been moved. Karl said the items in the boxes were his.
The box contained items like clothing, bedding, kitchenware and utensils. The items were laid out and photographed to be used in recording various statements. The items were not seized.
Police then visited Mr Liew’s home, where the remaining two boxes were. Mr Liew’s wife had recovered some items, including jewellery, watches and sunglasses, that were said to belong to Mr Liew’s daughter May. Police seized 51 items, 21 of which formed the third charge against Ms Parti.
Police did not seize all the items, Mr Shanmugam explained, as they were seen as daily use items claimed by the Liews. Photographs were taken in lieu of seizure.
Police then continued their investigations, taking statements from Ms Parti, the Liews and other witnesses. The matter was then referred to AGC, Mr Shanmugam said.
In 2016, police investigated 14,122 theft-related offences, resulting in 6,128 arrests, 500 of which were for theft as a servant. Maids made up 246 of these arrests. A total of 58, or about 24 per cent, were prosecuted.
Mr Shanmugam said police had acted in the public interest, adding that it needed to be fair to both the employer and maid when there is a complaint of theft. Based on the facts police had, there was a prima facie case for theft, he said.
This means police will have to investigate properly and let AGC decide whether to prosecute, he added.
When AGC received Ms Parti’s case from the police in June 2017, prosecutors would have assessed whether a charge was appropriate and decided what action, if any, should be taken, Mr Shanmugam said. The assessment and decision were cleared by a director, he added.
This procedure is routine in most cases, the minister said.
The file was reviewed by two Deputy Public Prosecutors (DPP), who asked the police to investigate a number of further points. After that was completed, the DPPs sought further investigations from the police.
“This back-and-forth between police and AGC is normal,” Mr Shanmugam said. “In many cases, DPPs will look at the material and ask further questions.”
Mr Shanmugam said AGC decided to charge Ms Parti for two main reasons: There was sufficient evidence that showed theft offences were likely to have been committed, and that it was in the public interest to prosecute.
At the time, Mr Shanmugam said AGC had evidence that showed the Liews had identified all the items in the charges as items that belonged to them, while giving some detail.
“In contrast, based on what AGC saw, Ms Liyani gave answers which raised many questions,” Mr Shanmugam said.
This includes Ms Parti claiming that she had found some jewellery in May’s trash, even though May had stated that she never threw jewellery away and that she would give unwanted pieces to friends or the Salvation Army.
“AGC assessed that the evidence of May was more believable,” Mr Shanmugam said.
AGC also did not find credible Ms Parti’s claims that she had found iPhones as well as a luxury bag and sunglasses in the trash.
Ms Parti also admitted taking some items, Mr Shanmugam said, referring to 10 to 15 pieces of clothing.
Explaining this, Mr Shanmugam said Ms Parti, in her first statement dated Dec 3, 2016, was asked how she came into possession of male clothing. She said the clothes belonged to her employer.
According to the statement, Ms Parti said she took the clothes because they were small and that she assumed Karl would not want the clothes. She said she did not ask Karl whether she could take the clothes, and that she admitted to taking them in early 2015, Mr Shanmugam said.
Citing Ms Parti’s second statement dated a day later, Ms Shanmugam said Ms Parti said she “only took about 10 to 15 men’s clothings belonging to my employer’s husband ... I admit that I had took it without informing my employer or her husband”.
“I did not steal any other items,” the statement continued.
The fact that she said she did not steal any other items was “very significant”, Mr Shanmugam said. “Prima facie, on the statements, this would appear to be theft,” he added.
Mr Shanmugam said Ms Parti gave other contradictory accounts to the police about several other items. This includes when she initially said watches found with her were gifts from a friend, and then saying in a later statement that they were found in May’s trash.
AGC also believed there was clear public interest in prosecuting Ms Parti, Mr Shanmugam said, as it appeared that Ms Parti had stolen many items, including some seemingly expensive ones.
It also appeared that Ms Parti had been stealing for years, and that it was not impulsive or spur-of-the-moment decisions, he added.
STATE COURTS TRIAL
Ms Parti’s trial was heard in the State Courts over 20 days, from Apr 23, 2018 to Jan 17, 2019. The DPPs who conducted the trial were different from the DPPs’ previously involved in the charging process. Ms Parti was represented by a lawyer under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.
Mr Shanmugam said the trial judge found “serious inconsistencies” in Ms Parti’s evidence, between what she said in court and her previous statements. The court also noted that Ms Parti sometimes changed her accounts under cross-examination when compared to her evidence-in-chief in court.
“The State Courts found Ms Liyani’s evidence on some items to be implausible,” Mr Shanmugam said.
For instance, Mr Shanmugam said the court preferred the Liews’ evidence that they would not discard old mobile phones as they were used as spare phones or hard drives to keep photographs. Ms Parti said that picked up two such phones from a rubbish bag.
The State Courts also preferred May’s evidence about the jewellery as it was more detailed, and that she had come across as “honest and forthright”, Mr Shanmugam said..
“The trial judge said the modus operandi of Ms Liyani was to take a variety of items from different family members, thinking that this would go unnoticed,” he added.
“DEFICIENT ASPECTS” OF POLICE INVESTIGATIONS
The High Court had commented on the police’s investigative processes and pointed out three “deficient” aspects, Mr Shanmugam said. This refers to the delay before exhibits were taken into custody, the poor quality of photos taken, and inaccuracies in the recording of statements.
Mr Shanmugam acknowledged that there was a “gap” between the police report being filed on Oct 30, 2016, and five weeks later when the police looked at the items on Dec 3, 2016.
“The scene should have been visited by the police close to the time of the police report,” he said. “This was a lapse which affected some, but not all, of the items in the charges.”
Mr Shanmugam highlighted that this break in the chain of custody might not have affected the High Court’s decision as it still acquitted Ms Parti in respect of the items not affected by the break.
“However, there can be no excuse for this lapse on the part of the police officer,” he said. “It is in breach of a legal requirement. It is also in breach of police protocol, both of which require the police to respond to a crime scene promptly or as soon as practicable.”
Mr Shanmugam said the broader objective of these requirements is to ensure the integrity of relevant evidence by securing it into police custody, or otherwise obtaining a proper record of it.
Whether there is a seizure depends on the facts of the case and the nature of the evidence, he said.
“However, even if there is no seizure, it is necessary to obtain a proper record of the evidence, such as by careful photography of the items,” he said.
“In this case, careful photography soon after the police report was filed may have been good enough. But that was not done. I said there can be no excuse.”
THE LOAD ON POLICE OFFICERS
After asking the police for an explanation, Mr Shanmugam said he was told that the investigating officer (IO) involved had a number of other ongoing prosecutions, arrest operations and a "very personal: matter.
“He seems to have been under a lot of pressure,” Mr Shanmugam added. “He was in a predicament. It is a situation many Home Team officers find themselves in. It is a reality of what our officers go through.
“Nevertheless, internal investigations are being carried out in relation to the conduct of the officers involved in this case. Action will be taken as necessary.”
Mr Shanmugam pointed out that in 2016, the police had about 1,100 IOs handle about 66,200 criminal cases.
Beyond that, Mr Shanmugam said he has noticed that “quite a lot of our officers” in the civil service are under work pressure.
“It is the general situation in many workplaces in Singapore with tight manpower issues, particularly several areas of the civil service,” he said.
Mr Shanmugam said he has asked for a review of the workload on police IOs, although he said there was no “easy solution” as it was a manpower issue. While technology has helped, it has limits, he said.
“The police are also looking into online case management systems to prompt officers on next steps in investigative workflows, and ensure accountability and minimise risk of lapses in investigations,” he added.
POOR QUALITY PHOTOS
The High Court had also made a point that poor quality black-and-white photos of allegedly stolen items in question were shown to Ms Parti during investigations.
“Police agree that colour photos would have been more effective,” Mr Shanmugam said. “Colour photos were shown to Ms Liyani in her final statemen, when a Bahasa Indonesia interpreter was also provided. Police will take on board the High Court’s comments, which are fair.”
The police’s review showed that the layout of the photographs was “not satisfactory”, Mr Shanmugam said, adding that some photos featured multiple items in a single photo, with some items overlapping and partially obscured.
INACCURACIES IN RECORDING STATEMENTS
Finally, the High Court made a point that there were inaccuracies in recording the statements, referring to the pace at which the questions were asked, the time at which one statement was taken, and the provision of a Bahasa Indonesia translator.
Mr Shanmugam had said that Ms Parti chose to speak in Malay after the recorder had asked if she wished to give her statement in Malay or Bahasa Indonesia.
“I have asked the police to ask what language the person wishes to speak, which they do, but also explain briefly what the process entails, the purpose of the statement, and that the accused may ask for an interpreter at any time,” Mr Shanmugam said.
“And that this should be recorded as part of the statement.”
The High Court had also pointed out that there were inaccuracies in the way questions were phrased, with grammatical errors.
“Police have said to me it is difficult to make sure there are no grammatical errors,” he said. “But they need to try and make sure grammatical errors, if any, should not affect the interpretation and understanding of the statement itself.”
Regarding the time at which the statement was taken, Mr Shanmugam said police accept the point made. According to court documents, some questions were asked “in the wee hours of the morning”.
“Sometimes the timing is inevitable because of the legal requirement to release the person under investigation, within 48 hours,” he said.
“The police will have to make an assessment on whether the person is capable of understanding the questions at the time the statements are taken.”
AGC’S VALUATION OF ITEMS
Mr Shanmugam said the AGC has identified specific areas it needed to improve in, including the valuation of items that are the subject of property offences.
The minister said it has been the “general practice” to rely on the complainant’s assessment of value, adding that in Ms Parti’s case, the valuation of items in the charges were derived from the Liews’ estimates.
“There are currently no formal guidelines for prosecution on the issue of valuation. Prosecutors are expected use judgment and discretion,” he added.
“AGC is developing guidelines on this issue. Independent assessment of the value of the items may have helped in respect of some of the items in this case.”
AGC’S TRIAL PREPARATION
Secondly, Mr Shanmugam said AGC is also looking at how it prepares for trials, and will seek to learn from this and other cases.
Ultimately, Mr Shanmugam said the prosecutions’ “overarching role” is to ensure justice is done and not to “win the case at all costs”.
“This point is not being made by reference to this case. It is a general point,” he stated. “AGC has consistently emphasised this point to all its officers, and will continue to do so.”
Mr Shamugam also noted that the High Court had made observations about AGC on how the functionality of a DVD player, one of the items in the second charge, was demonstrated in the State Courts.
This is the subject of a disciplinary inquiry against two DPPs who handled her trial for alleged misconduct. The Chief Justice has granted Ms Parti leave for an investigation to be conducted.
“AGC has filed an affidavit explaining its position on record,” Mr Shanmugam said. “The matter is now the subject of disciplinary proceedings and thus I will refrain from commenting on this.”
Mr Shanmugam said the proceedings are disciplinary in nature, with possible penal sanctions. There will be a full account of what the DPPs did at the disciplinary tribunal, he added.
“The key question before us is whether there was any improper influence on them,” he stated.
STATE COURTS AND HIGH COURT DECISIONS
On when the case entered the courts, Mr Shanmugam said the State Courts deal with most of the criminal cases in Singapore. Appeals go to the High Court, with about 10 per cent of them succeeding in, for instance, setting aside the convictions or reducing the sentence.
Ms Parti’s case falls in that 10 per cent, he said. In this 10 per cent, there can be different views on evidence or law, or there can be exigencies of trial process where witnesses say different things or something new turns up, Mr Shanmugam added.
He said the question is not which court was right or wrong, but whether the case was conducted fairly in both courts.
He pointed out that the State Courts heard evidence from 12 prosecution witnesses and four defence witnesses including Ms Parti over 20 days. It also observed the witnesses, considered their evidence and assessed Ms Parti’s submissions before making its findings.
The High Court considered the lower court’s findings and Ms Parti’s further submissions over three days before coming to a different view, he added.
“The matter was thoroughly ventilated and considered by both the State Courts and the High Court,” Mr Shanmugam stated.