Landmark human-trafficking case: Manager of Taraana pub acquitted of four charges
Khema Bhatta is the manager of Hindi music pub Taraana, while Balakrishnan Jaganathan is its director. They were each facing seven charges of abuse of power to “harbour and exploit” seven Bangladeshi women who were performing artistes at the pub.
A Nepalese woman was on Wednesday (May 6) acquitted of four charges by the State Courts for exploiting and trafficking two Bangladeshi women and holding on to their passports in a landmark case.
The Nepalese, 33-year-old Khema Bhatta, was the first to be charged in Singapore four years ago for labour trafficking under the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act (PHTA).
In delivering his verdict on Wednesday, District Judge Mathew Joseph said he found the accounts of the two victims to be “unreliable” and “lacking in credibility”.
“There were internal and external inconsistencies in all the evidence,” said the judge. “They had also lied in some areas.”
The victims, who are both 29 now, cannot be named because of a gag order.
On May 20, 2016, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) charged Khema and her then 52-year-old Singaporean husband Balakrishnan Jaganathan for offences under the PHTA.
Khema is the manager of Hindi music pub Taraana, while Balakrishnan is the director. They were each facing seven charges of abuse of power to “harbour and exploit” seven Bangladeshi women who were performing artistes at the pub.
These purported offences were said to have happened between June 2015 and February 2016.
Khema had contested four charges — two under the PHTA and two under the Passports Act.
Balakrishnan’s case is still pending.
The two Bangladeshi women whose cases were heard first were “subject to various instances of abuse” by Khema, the prosecution had charged.
They were purportedly strip-searched every day, kept in “jail-like” conditions and given limited food. Customers were even allowed to touch the women’s private parts, the court heard.
But Khema’s defence counsel Thrumurgan Ramapiram pointed out that when MOM officers conducted a surprise inspection of the pub on Oct 7, 2015, none of the performing artistes made any complaints.
“It is indeed inexplicable that for persons who were subjected to such alleged abuses, they did not take that opportunity to complain and/or escape,” the Trident Law Corporation defence lawyer said.
Mr Thrumurgan also referenced video footage shot on Oct 6, 2015, which showed the women with a group of performing artistes and Balakrishnan.
In one clip, he said that one of the pair could be seen reaching out to Balakrishnan and kissing him on his cheek.
Said Mr Thrumurgan: “This is telling of the relationship between (Balakrishnan) and the performing artistes."
District Judge Joseph said he had “observed all the witnesses carefully” when they testified in court.
“This is a somewhat unusual case, as both prosecution and defence witnesses have been found by this court to be generally unreliable and lacking in credibility,” he said.
“This also applies to the two key prosecution witnesses (the 29-year-old women).”
He said they had used “exaggerated statements, extreme body gestures, even tears and hyperbole” when they were giving their testimonies.
He noted that one of the women had said: “I felt like I’m in a zoo; I felt like I’m a criminal, like a terrorist.”
“This was simply quite incredulous,” said the judge. “In short, their testimony was not creditworthy, nor did it have that ring of truth.”
District Judge Joseph said the two women had also not given a “coherent account” of the events concerning their stay in Singapore and their employment with Taarana.
“I was therefore of the firm view that a conviction based on their unreliable evidence would be wholly unsafe,” he said. “In sum, the defence account of events has raised a reasonable doubt in my mind as to the guilt of the accused.”
District Judge Joseph also said that the prosecution had failed to call on an MOM investigation officer who had recorded statements from some of the defence witnesses.
He said that the investigation officer was “clearly a material witness who could have provided useful evidence to the court”.
The prosecution has appealed against the decision.
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