SINGAPORE - The High Court has acquitted a Filipino domestic worker who was jailed 12 months by a district judge for stealing her then 89-year-old employer's ATM cards and withdrawing a total of $8,000 from his bank accounts.
Ms Portela Vilma Jimenez, now 50, was found guilty of 10 charges of theft by District Judge Jasvender Kaur earlier this year, for stealing two ATM cards belonging to Mr Yong Choon Hiong and making eight unauthorised withdrawals of $1,000 each from his bank accounts.
The withdrawals, which were captured on CCTV footage, were made on six occasions between Jan 13, 2017 and Feb 8, 2017. Seven transactions involved Mr Yong's United Overseas Bank ATM card, and one was made with his POSB ATM card.
Both the prosecution and the defence did not dispute that the withdrawals were made.
But Deputy Public Prosecutor Sia Jiazheng said Ms Jimenez had done so without Mr Yong's knowledge after stealing the ATM cards.
Her lawyers, Suang Wijaya and Syazana Yahya, said she was allowed to make the withdrawals in exchange for sexual favours she gave to her elderly employer.
High Court Judge Chua Lee Ming, who heard the appeal and overturned the conviction, has not issued a written judgment.
But Ms Jimenez's lawyers said Justice Chua did not agree that the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Yong did not hand the ATM cards to her.
Ms Jimenez, who had worked in Singapore and Kuwait for 20 years, was working for Mr Yong and his wife from December 2015 until April 2017.
As Mr Yong's wife suffers from dementia and was wheelchair-bound, Ms Jimenez had access to the couple's room so she could take care of the elderly woman at night.
The DPP said this was how she was able to remove Mr Yong's ATM card from his wallet, which he would leave in a drawer at night.
The DPP also said Ms Jimenez would have known Mr Yong's personal identification number, which was the same for both cards, as she often went grocery shopping with the elderly couple and would have seen him punching in the numbers when he made payments.
Mr Yong had said he first discovered the unauthorised withdrawals from his account when he received his January 2017 bank statements in February that year.
He said he had gone to UOB in early February to ask the bank about the matter and filed complaints on Feb 21 during a visit to open a joint account with his son.
He made a police report the next day, as he was told that he would not be able to view the CCTV footage without one.
However, Mr Wijaya and Ms Syazana disputed Mr Yong's version of events. They said he had passed his ATM card and written his PIN number on a piece of paper for Ms Jimenez, so that she could withdraw money in exchange for sexual favours.
They contended that Mr Yong had agreed to pay her $500 each time she allowed him to touch her breasts and crotch, and that she was paid on four occasions for this.
They also said Mr Yong had made a police report as he had lied to his family about the unauthorised withdrawals after they found out about it.
In court, Ms Jimenez said Mr Yong had also agreed to pay her twice for sexual intercourse, though it did not happen in the end as he was unable to penetrate her on one occasion and she did not agree to it on another.
She also said she did not know how to use the ATM and had thus just pressed a button, leading to $1,000 being dispensed each time. But she said she would give the money to Mr Yong, who would then keep $500 and give her $500.
District Judge Jasvender Kaur, who convicted Ms Jimenez, said the offences were committed against "a vulnerable victim" of advanced age, who was already 91 when he had to testify in court.
The judge also found that her evidence was riddled with inconsistencies. For instance, Ms Jimenez had said she only remembered withdrawing money on four occasions, though the CCTV footage showed that she had withdrawn money on eight occasions. Ms Jimenez had also said she did not know how to use the ATM machine, though she had a DBS account and an ATM card of her own.
According to Ms Jimenez' lawyers, Justice Chua had found that it was Mr Yong's evidence that was inconsistent, rather than Ms Jimenez's. A key factor was the fact that he had waited for three weeks before reporting the unauthorised withdrawals to the police.
The acquittal has gained traction among some netizens, with some drawing comparisons to the Parti Liyani case, which involved another maid who was acquitted by the High Court of stealing from her employer, Mr Liew Mun Leong.
Ms Parti's case has prompted internal reviews by the Home Affairs and Law Ministries, with Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam due to deliver a ministerial statement on the matter in Parliament this week.