HONG KONG (AFP) – A former Indonesian maid on Monday told a court that she was starved, beaten and ritually humiliated by her Hong Kong employer in a case that sparked international outrage.
Erwiana Sulistyaningsih described in vivid detail how for months on end she lived on nothing but bread and rice, slept only four hours a day and was beaten so badly by her former employer Law Wan-tung that she was knocked unconscious.
“I was tortured,” she told the packed courtroom through a translator on the opening day of Law’s trial.
“She often hit me… sometimes she would hit me from behind, sometimes she hit me in the front. I was hit so often sometimes I got a headache… She hit me in my mouth (so) I had difficulty breathing.”
Sulistyaningsih’s case has shone a spotlight on the plight of Hong Kong’s nearly 300,000 domestic workers, drawing angry crowds onto the streets in May to protest for better working conditions.
Opening the prosecution, solicitor Louisa Lai detailed the harrowing litany of abuse the former maid allegedly suffered, including how she was told to wrap her sores-covered feet in plastic bags “because of the smell”.
Pictures of the 23-year-old, who was admitted to a hospital in Indonesia in January emaciated and in critical condition, drew international condemnation as they spread on social media.
But on Monday, Sulistyaningsih, dressed in a purple jacket and white woollen jumper, remained calm as she told the court how Law had even “scratched my nose and my face” with her bare hands.
In one incident, she described being stripped naked, sprayed with water and made to stand in front of a fan in the bathroom in the middle of winter.
Prosecutors also allege Law used household items such as a mop, vacuum cleaner and a clothes hanger as “weapons” against Sulistyaningsih.
“She put a vacuum cleaner into my mouth… and twisted it round my lips. It was bleeding and very painful,” Sulistyaningsih said.
Law faces 21 charges – also relating to two other former domestic helpers – including grievous bodily harm with intent, criminal intimidation and failure to pay wages. The most serious are punishable by up to life in prison.
The 44-year-old mother-of-two was arrested in January as she tried to board a flight to Thailand but was released on bail pending the trial.
Dressed in a light brown coat and thick-rimmed glasses, Law kept her head down as her former maid described the alleged abuse, occasionally shooting her a glance.
Earlier she had pleaded not guilty to all but one of the charges against her, admitting only that she had failed to arrange insurance for Sulistyaningsih.
Hong Kong is home to nearly 300,000 maids, mainly from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Amnesty International last year condemned the “slavery-like” conditions faced by some domestic helpers in the southern Chinese city, and accused authorities of “inexcusable” inaction.
On Monday around 20 members of an organisation representing domestic workers in the city staged a protest outside the court, waving signs saying “No to modern day slavery” and featuring pictures of Sulistyaningsih. “Justice for Erwiana!” and “We are workers, we are not slaves!” they shouted.
Sulistyaningsih on Monday said she became a virtual prisoner in the house where she worked after she was caught trying to run away.
After that Law took her passport and wallet and locked her in the house at all times, she said.