Lawyer Anil Balchandani talks about why he defended helper Parti Liyani in new video by HOME

Going to trial and appealing verdict took longer than pleading guilty and going to jail.

Belmont Lay | September 10, 2020, 02:42 AM

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Anil Balchandani, the Singaporean defence lawyer who successfully got Indonesian domestic helper Parti Liyani acquitted of all charges, is the man of the moment.

The lawyer's dogged fight and successful defence of an innocent woman has been toasted by many in Singapore, who have read extensively about his David-versus-Goliath heroics in court on a pro bono basis that even extracted the appeal judge's approval.

Balchandani, supported all along by the indefatigable individuals from the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), has now appeared in a new video put up by the NGO on Sept. 9.

12-minute video shot before appeal's success

The video, devoid of emotion-priming background music or voiceover, was shot on Aug. 23, 2020, a week before the High Court ruling on Sept. 4 that allowed Parti's last-chance appeal to pass.

The 12-minute video was telling in its own way, with the final appeal result still up in the air then.

From Balchandani's even-handed, careful, and dispassionate responses, despite what was clearly a long-drawn and daunting trial and appeal process over many months where the odds were stacked against him and Parti from the beginning, to his principled deflection of credit to the true heroes in the NGO scene who have been helping scores of victims such as Parti -- a position his law firm maintained on his behalf post-appeal -- the heaviness of the uncertainty at that moment is difficult to miss.

The outcome was out of Balchandani's hands, but the act of contemplating the consequences of an appeal that had every chance to be rejected is to also conceive of the unthinkable: Actually prevailing.

What interview touched on

Balchandani was throughout the clip speaking to an interviewer off-camera.

He was responding to questions that delve into his assessment of his chances of getting Parti off the various charges levelled against her and what was his role in the proceedings thus far.

Throughout, Balchandani spoke in a deliberate manner, carefully picking his words to remain both neutral and economical.

He reflected on Parti's strengths, extrapolated her plight to the many foreign workers in Singapore who have faced or are facing similar ordeals but not necessarily having the wherewithal to see through a trial, and then redirected the focus to the need to give voice to those overlooked in society who lack political representation.

In the process, he articulated the position of the vulnerable accused of wrongdoing, who could, in practical terms, be better off by pleading guilty.

Choice quotes from interview

In another act of modest, almost unintended charity, Balchandani, whose star has risen because of this case, has helped catapult HOME -- an outfit more used to biting down hard and doing unglamorous work stoically away from the spotlight -- into its own halo to shine alongside.

Here are some choice quotes by Balchandani from the video:

Why the trial was hard

"It was a very, very difficult trial, not just because we knew it was going to last, you know, 10 months. It was a very difficult and long-drawn trial because of the sheer number of items that we had to deal with, or at least I had to deal with."

"And I didn't have any assistants, so I had to rely on a well-managed or well-accounted for set of documents, understand Parti's instructions clearly."

How the odds were stacked against the defence

"We were up against a very tenacious set of prosecutors, we also were up against a very prominent family and we didn't have a, you know, robust defence."

"And what I mean by that is that we didn't have a defence that was based on photographs that Parti had taken. In fact one of the downsides of our case is Parti as a person, just never really took a lot of photographs of herself to identify, look I had these items, I bought these items."

How appeal was lucky in a way

"The High Court appeal was all so long, it took, and has taken three full days of appeal."

"I think the maybe memorable or most lucky point that we had was we asked the court to have all the items presented before it."

"Because usually all of this is done at the trial level, but at the appellant level, it's more oral."

"And the court agreed."

"And that allowed us to present to the court what you can't see in pictures."

"So the condition of the items, the clothes, the rags, the very old DVD players, the earrings, the jewellery that was outdated -- you could see it in a photograph but you will not appreciate it until you see it."

"And slowly we were, you know, able to inch forward."

"And we had to basically convince the judge, look, why would someone steal junk?"

Surprised at Parti's resolve

"But let me say this, moving away from the legal side, I must say I was surprised with Parti's resolve because someone in her shoes generally faces more than just the pressure from the legal system."

"There is a family that she has to take care of, probably living expenses in Singapore, and just the inability to talk to anybody, no friends probably, or a lot of folks who may not understand what she is going through."

"And so the surprise was that she was able to hold fort up to now."

Pleading guilty would have been easier

"Because if you look at Parti's case, if she had pleaded guilty at the first mention, or shortly after the offer was given in 2017, she would have been at home now, two and a half years down the road, or perhaps even quicker because the offer was for just a couple of charges, or at least one or two charges."

"And she could've restarted her life, continued working in another country, and just thought about what happened in October 2016 when she was dismissed as just a bad dream, you know."

HOME helped a lot

"Unfortunately, a lot of FDW don't know their rights and don't have that courage and are financially strapped... but you need to at least have some way to sustain yourself without lowering your dignity."

"And that's where I think the power of the HOME team came in."

"It was a group of very dedicated, in fact, mostly women, who believed also in Yani's innocence."

The difficulties foreign workers face in court

"I think a large part, one of the problems in dealing with FDWs or FWs is that they have to present their case, their story in court. And a lot of them are not either confident, or they come off as being very, not underconfident, just unprepared also, you know. It's a daunting process being cross-examined. It is easy to say 'I don't know'. It is easy to say 'I forgot'.

Remain neutral in the lead-up to the appeal verdict

"And so as we approach, I guess, judgement day, which is on the 4th of September, I think I just have to remain somewhat neutral, and you have to necessarily accept the wisdom of the court, you know. And how it has decided, either, well, necessarily against you, or against the person who is in the dock."

Admitting to wrongdoing

"I always had this impression that when you have I think about a million people here who are foreign domestic workers and foreign workers without proper representation, I'm talking about at the political level, you are going to run into problems down the line."

"And problems down the line end up being problems with our justice system where foreign domestic workers or foreign workers just don't know what they are up against and don't know who to turn to."

"They feel that it is convenient, or they are given the impression it is convenient to apologise and plead guilty and they will be sent home which is what they really want after a little while of being accused and interrogated, and that in itself is an injustice. It sounds good when we are able to technically solve a case. When I use the word 'technically', I try to mean that you've found a guilty person."

"But it may not really be that it is the right person."

More can be done for the vulnerable accused of crime

"Our criminal justice system doesn't necessarily protect them when there's an accusation against them."

"And as we get a little more advanced as a nation, we need to realise that the system as we envision it doesn't cater for these unrepresented folks and I'm talking about politically unrepresented, and the reason why I say that is with proper representation these issues are naturally heard. But without this representation you don't know until something terrible happens."

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