Erwiana Sulistyaningsih

Indonesian maid at centre of 'torture ordeal' row could sue Hong Kong government

Indonesian helper who says she was abused for eight months by employer considers a case claiming city violated its 'duty of protection'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 2014, 5:09am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 10:41am

The Indonesian domestic helper who claims she suffered eight months of torture at the hands of her Hong Kong employer may sue the city's government.

Lawyers asked about the case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, who is in hospital back home, claim the city's human rights laws could have been breached.

Under Article 3 of the 1997 Bill of Rights Ordinance, the government has a duty to protect people from torture and "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".

Cynthia Ca Abdon-Tellez, head of the Mission for Migrant Workers, said: "We have discussed bringing a case against the government with lawyers. We are now waiting for Erwiana and her family to make a decision."

The news came as organisers claimed about 5,000 helpers and supporters marched from police headquarters to the government building in Admiralty yesterday to demand justice for Erwiana.

Police said 2,100 people took part in the rally at its peak.

Watch: Hong Kong maids march for better protection

Erwiana arrived in Hong Kong to work as a helper on May 27 and went home to Sragen, Central Java, on January 10. She claims her employer in Tseung Kwan O threatened to kill her family if she revealed her ordeal.

She has appointed a lawyer in Hong Kong, said Eman Villanueva, a spokesman for the Asian Migrants' Co-ordinating Body.

Rights lawyer Robert Tibbo, who advised surveillance whistle-blower Edward Snowden, said Erwiana's lawyers could sue the government for failing to fulfil its constitutional obligation to provide state protection to victims of torture or cruel treatment.

He said remedies for a violation of those rights can be sought under Section 6 of the Bill of Rights, but no specific penalty for such a breach is stipulated.

Tibbo said he was shocked to learn that airport immigration officers did not inquire about Erwiana's condition when she left Hong Kong. He said: "The woman showed clear signs of being tortured and nothing less than that. She was emaciated and had a large number of scars on her face, hands and feet."

Simon Young Ngai-man, deputy director of Hong Kong University’s law department, said Tibbo’s idea was “definitely worth exploring”.

“[Lawyers] could argue the government had acquiesced to torture against Erwiana when immigration officers didn’t do anything or because the government had not monitored employment agencies well enough,” Young said.

A government spokeswoman, questioned about the possibility of a lawsuit, said: "We have nothing further to add to the remarks made by Secretary for Labour and Welfare [Matthew Cheung Kin-chung] and Secretary for Security [Lai Tung-kwok]."

Cheung vowed on Saturday to step up the monitoring of employment agencies for foreign domestic helpers and to punish employers who break the law.

Erwiana's recruitment agency, Chan's Asia Recruitment Centre, has denied accusations by her representatives that the agency pressured her to keep working to pay back agency fees of HK$18,000.

Police are treating Erwiana's case as one of wounding and it is being handled by the Kwun Tong district crime squad. Police sources have said officers plan to travel to Sragen today to take statements from Erwiana because so far they had only "second-hand information".

The South China Morning Post has visited the apartment building of Erwiana's former employer, a woman, three times, but got no response.

Additional reporting by Phila Siu