Moving On

22 November 2008

What Comes After the Jury Finding

Run . . . by Face it, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the more difficult, but sometimes comforting, aspects of being involved in a cause is that there’s always a new case to pursue, another direction in which to channel energy. I met with fellow members of the Justice for Vicky Flores concern group last night and we decided to move on after the jury finding that put her death down to suicide. None of us could possibly draw the same conclusion given the evidence available, but we accept that the finding brings us to the end of our campaign to ensure that justice was done for the woman and her family. Procedural justice will just have to be enough this time around.

But even as we spoke of how we felt, how we failed and how we succeeded, we were aware that other people need our help as well. Some things we can’t change, but some we can. Tomorrow we’ll sort through the Labour Tribunal case of a domestic helper who was used as free labour for a month, sacked and then shifted over to the apartment of the owner of the employment agency through which she was recruited for ‘extra training’ – a clear breach of contract, amongst a few others. It just so happens that the owner of the employment agency is the sister-in-law of the employer, who has filed a counterclaim with the Labour Tribunal. Pure maliciousness is an epidemic amongst employers of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

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Vicky Flores Inquest Finding

20 November 2008

Death by Suicide

Cemetery, by Comrade_S, with Creative Commons licence The jury has given its finding at Vicky Flores’ inquest here in Hong Kong. After accepting directions from the Coroner to weigh the overall evidence and consider the reliability of the witness whose evidence I called into question in my last post, in a 4-1 majority decision they found that Vicky committed suicide. This is obviously a blow to her family, who now cannot draw from an insurance payout to cover the costs of Vicky’s funeral. It also leaves the suspicion that the jury failed to understand a wide range of Filipino cultural references, which were not explained in court.

The Coroner did direct the jury to ignore any evidence they found insubstantial, but the standard rules of hearsay clearly do not apply to jury findings in an inquest. Still, and this is a very important point to remember, the group I’ve worked with since April to push the process this far succeeded in having natural, otherwise known as procedural, justice delivered.

Now we’re at the end of the line, which has always been the major goal. Despite the jury’s finding, evidence has been very hard to come by in this case and no revelations were expected at the inquest. We expected either an open finding, meaning that the evidence could not support a substantial decision, or a finding of suicide.

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Same Old

20 November 2008

More Manufactured Scandal from a Directionless Rag

Shock Shock Horror Horror, by Jeremy Brooks, with Creative Commons licenceWhile waiting for the Coroner’s Court to hand down its finding on Vicky Flores’ death this morning I picked up our copy of the South China Morning Post, curious to know what salacious details it might have reported this time around. And it didn’t disappoint. The following post appeared in slightly different form on A Death in Hong Kong earlier this morning. The links to the original SCMP article lead to a PDF file, so everyone can read it.

The South China Morning Post has again reported incorrectly on Vicky’s inquest. Despite the headline on page 3 of the City section today, Vicky did not ‘visit’ a ‘witch doctor’ (otherwise known as a ‘quack’) about her headaches. A friend, supposedly a ‘boyfriend’, did on her behalf, taking a picture of Vicky with him.

So much for attention to detail from the SCMP’s subeditors.

The witness mentioned in the article who made the claim that Vicky was “out of her mind” shifted uneasily in her seat when Irene, Vicky’s sister, questioned her about this, kept looking down and moved her gaze from side to side. She also raised her voice defensively when questioned about how she knew that Vicky didn’t have good relations with her family. Her claim was that Vicky told her so.

In other words, she was presenting hearsay evidence.

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The Colours of Justice

19 November 2008

Observations at an Inquest*

Gavel, by noyava, with Creative Commons licenceBrown and beige are the colour scheme of bureaucracy. They combine to imply formality, procedure – the dull grind of life. Within them lies a nostalgia for fashion since past, a hint of the 1970s almost 40 years on, a sort of resistance to trends, to things of the moment. Bureaucracy resists change, remains outside the flow of happenstance, because it directs the momentum of society, modulates what is acceptable, determines the limits of permissibility. The Coroner’s Court in Hong Kong is brown and beige, with a touch of olive to induce a sense of refrain – nothing too bright, too noticeable, too complicated will happen here. All is sombre. It’s a place where people often cry, because death is a burden for the living.

An inquest is a difficult time – it revives the life of a person past, disgorges detail best left at peace. But the necessity of finding a reason for a previously unexplained death dictates witnesses, questions, counter-questions, a solemn jury, a stern Justice and associated personnel. It has a colour of its own, a sort of grey, a mood that pervades each step of the process. Old friends speak in fits and starts, new friends speculate, lawyers direct recollections toward possible evidence of suicide or its lack; all done subtlety, moving around the subject as though it wasn’t quite there.

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No News Today

18 November 2008

Journalism, Going Cheap

Order & chaos, by mushon, with Creatve Commons licenceMinority language newspapers are rarely the epitome of quality journalism, whether they suffer from under-funding, under-enthusiastic staff or just a simple lack of credibility given a small readership balanced against the necessity to drag in advertising revenue. Hong Kong’s second English daily, the Standard, staggered along as a business paper in recent years, finally devolving into a free 5-day tabloid edition with more advertisements than copy.  Such is the fate of a narrowly focused publication in a shrinking market. But the premier South China Morning Post, an old-school 7-day broadsheet, is having none of that.

Staff members I’ve talked to claim that the SCMP is intent on reinventing itself as publication read by English speaking Chinese and that the subscription data support that claim, although no-one can really say to what extent. The circulation figures seem to be up, which might be a good thing, but it’s hard to tell because free issues are always available at one of the local universities, at least.

Another, and perhaps more substantial, problem with this scenario of expanding the readership is that readers want to read. It might be using a revenue-based business model to determine the success or failure of its circulation drive, but the SCMP needs sufficiently good copy to make that model viable. Unfortunately, and I write this as a subscriber to both the print edition and the online edition (yes, Virginia, some newspapers still charge fees for access), the standard of journalism ranges from the occasionally impressive to more common run-of-the-mill, and bottoms out at irresponsible, which is a polite word for crap.

Allow me to discuss the low end of this scale, because excellence speaks for itself and it’s somewhat difficult to interest readers with repetitions of uninspiring column inches. I’ve mentioned the newspaper’s coverage of Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death in Hong Kong before, with my most negative commentary reserved for sensationalism in reportage about “the ‘occult references’ and ‘weird messages that sounded like mantras'” found on her mobile phone – which were little more than a misinterpreted ongoing conversation with an occasional friend.

That sets the scene for the SCMP‘s coverage of the inquest into Vicky’s death yesterday, the headline of which read “Maid got love letter before death, inquest told”. Hardly exciting news, but the lede increased the tempo:

A maid whose body was found in the sea after she ran screaming from her employers’ home had earlier received a love letter and a text message mentioning biblical “last days” from a man in her home town.

Search Privacy, by mushon, with Creative Commons licenceNow we have an apocryphal message, but the text message in question read, in part: “We are already in the last days. God is offering his holy spirit to us and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ Bible Society”. Anyone who has spent time with Filipinos or in the Philippines will know that forwarding text messages like that is very common, as are small charismatic Christian churches and the like. A literal belief in the Book of Revelations and the proximity of Christ’s second coming isn’t as widespread, but you don’t have to search far for it.

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Slowly Turn the Wheels of Justice

14 August 2008

Police Report Issued on Vicky Flores Death

Almost four months after Vicenta ‘Vicky’ Flores – a Filipino domestic helper in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong – fled her employers’ home and drowned under mysterious circumstances, the regional police have finalised their investigation. Today’s print edition of the South China Morning Post reports that the North Lantau police issued a report on the case “this week”, without specifying a day or any other details.

Vicky’s disappearance and death have been a very serious issue here in Discovery Bay, not only because the loss of life is tragic and the community has been diminished by her passing, but also because the government reaction to it has revealed a distinct lack of enthusiasm in dealing with people from other cultures, and an inability to communicate meaningfully with minority ethnic communities.

Following standard procedure, the police report has been forwarded to the Coroner, who will consider whether an inquest is necessary. Given that the police refused to investigate the circumstances of Vicky’s employment and focused on ludicrous insinuations of “cult-like” connections, a re-investigation of the situation through the Coroner’s Court will be most welcome.

Around a month ago the Justice for Vicky Flores concern group, of which I’m a member, received independent advice that an inquest would be likely due to the publicity and genuine concern surrounding the case. This was complemented more recently by an indication from the Lantau District Police Commander that “a death inquest is very likely to be held”. Of course, that in no way guarantees an inquest, which will bring much needed transparency to the case in an open court, but it’s promising given the latest news.

Dealing with the police in Hong Kong isn’t an easy task, despite a wealth of propaganda that suggests a mission to serve and protect. For the sake of Vicky’s family – especially her sister Irene, who has struggled through a mountain of difficulty both here in Hong Kong and at home in the Philippines to make sense of the situation – any news of the police finding and a prompt indication of an inquest date will be vital.

In a humane society, people care for people, even foreigners.


Wrong Arm of the Law

14 June 2008

Remedial Reading for a Would-Be Sleuth

Cycle (TC 5), by Irena Kittenclaw, with Creative Commons licenceJustice is a complex issue, covered over with perceptions and shot through with assumptions – many of which are surprisingly wide of the mark. In the move from being just, or morally right, to dispensing justice, an elite intercedes and begins to make decisions on what is usual, what is fair, what seems out of place. Like any apparatus of power, the legal system is a step aside from society, with its own, often fragmented, understanding of how people live, prosper, decline and die.

The new micoreviews in the toolbar at the right are part of my reaction to that disassociation – the hesitant beginning of an inquiry into what makes justice just, and the ways in which it can err.

A crucial element in that inquiry is the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores here in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. The police inquiry into the case is currently plodding towards a conclusion that the dead woman was irrational, prone to dabbling in the occult and by implication – though never explicitly stated – a likely candidate for suicide. But gathering together the scant documentary evidence of police conduct so far, and keeping in mind what they have said publicly, the investigation seems strangely curtailed. Why focus on the possible activities of a dead woman when her home and work life (she was a live-in domestic helper) are by and large ignored?

Detective_Tales_Dec48, by PopKulture, with Creative Commons licenceWith that sort of oversight in mind I began reading about police investigation and the English legal system, which is the basis for Hong Kong’s own. And where else to turn for a soft introduction but to that perennial super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes?

That decision was a little less whimsical than it might seem, because E. J. Wagner has written an eminently readable history of forensic investigation using Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character as a foil. Wagner’s Science of Sherlock Holmes picks out episodes in Conan Doyle’s tales of mystery to trace the history of forensic investigation as it emerged in Victorian England, all the while highlighting the benefits and limits of precision detective work.

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Afterwords

1 June 2008

A Brief Interruption

083/365 - Ahead and Up, by Just.K, with Creative Commons licenceIn a recent post on the limitations of traditional news I mentioned the importance of looking past events, of understanding happenings as a sort of ill-defined continuum. The point should always be to ask what happened next, and what should happen now. That entails speculation, of course, and ways of anticipating the future, to the extent possible. It’s also a fundamentally activist position, moving past the passive reception of news, actively seeking evidence of change where none seems apparent. So with that in mind I’m putting my short series on mental health and human rights on hold for while to offer an example of what news might look like, after the event.

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I’ve recently been involved in a difficult campaign to have the Hong Kong police thoroughly investigate the disappearance and death of Vicky Flores, a Filipino domestic helper who lived and worked in my community of Discovery Bay. It seems increasingly likely that they’re taking the easy route to an explanation, which the major English language newspaper foreshadowed in an article claiming that Vicky had “occult-links“. In many ways, the group to which I belong – the Justice for Vicky Flores Concern Group – is powerless to change that insinuation, but we have been fortunate in raising the profile of migrant worker rights in a small part of Hong Kong.

A week or so back Joan Gill, a writer for the community magazine Inside DB called me to ask questions for a feature article on Vicky and what has been happening in response to her death. She also spoke to Edwina Antonio, another member of the group and a tireless helper of migrant workers in Hong Kong. Joan wanted to know more about the situation as it stood, and what we wanted to do in the future, what we needed to do in the future. I was very pleased to offer my thoughts, and hopeful that the article would highlight the difficulties faced by women who earn less here in a month than what many people spend on lunch over the same period.

The result was astounding, and a perfect example of what the media, even the community media, can do if it wants to look past events. The following is a modified version of a post on the article I published earlier on A Death in Hong Kong.

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On Disappointment

21 May 2008

Language, Life and the Final Rest of Vicenta Flores

Shame, by fabbriciuse, with Creative Commons licenceDisappointment is a difficult emotion that few can endure and feel they were prepared, that they’d done enough to cope. Yesterday I read the autopsy report on Vicenta Flores, the Filipino domestic helper who disappeared and died last month in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. Vicky’s sister Irene graciously allowed me to see it, but as I read I realised that it said no more than we already knew. That Vicky Flores was dead – a blank finding, plain words, no obscure clues, no real chance of an inquest.

Death by drowning

For a moment when I spoke to Irene she seemed to hope that I might say something no-one else had said. But every word was a disappointment, a frustration, an absence of hope. No-one is any closer to knowing why her sister fled what seemed to be a settled life, how she drowned. The suspicion is that the police, as they too often do in Hong Kong, will mark this case a suicide. In that you can read a defiance of logic if you like, an insinuation that ‘girls’ like Vicky – exposed every moment of the day to arbitrary strictures, toughened by the tribulations of the migrant worker’s life – are somehow weak, in some way irrational.

Deduction is easy if you look cross-wise at circumstance, if you push away substance for insinuation. I reported earlier that one local newspaper has carried dubious allegations of Vicky’s involvement in “cult-like” activities; another, the Filipino Globe, joined the frail chorus earlier this month. Both cited a mysterious document in Latin, and unusual text messages in Tagalog.

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Farewell Vicenta Flores

19 May 2008

A New Journey has Begun

Life is so very often a difficult path to travel; the ground underfoot is rarely steady, the scenery can be unfamiliar and we constantly leave behind many unanswered questions. Last night I published a slightly different version of the following post on A Death in Hong Kong to mark the start of Vicenta Flores’ final journey to her native Philippines. Vicenta – a Filipino domestic helper in my community of Discovery Bay, Hong Kong – disappeared under mysterious circumstances on 7 April, and her body was found only four days later.

Goodbye and God Bless

As the service beganFamily, friends, supporters and Discovery Bay residents gathered today, 18 May, to pay their final respects to Vicky Flores before the repatriation of her remains to the Philippines. In a service held at the Universal Funeral Parlour in Hung Hom, Kowloon, prayers were offered, eulogies were given and tears flowed in mourning for a woman who spent too little time on this Earth.

United in their grief, the group – like many others in Hong Kong – were still asking questions about Vicky’s disappearance and death, questions the local authorities have yet to answer, or even indicate they are fully capable of answering.

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Puerile Journalism in Vicenta Flores Case

4 May 2008

How to Defame a Dead Woman in One Short Article

wooden shoes & newspaper inlay, by Kokjebalder, with Creative Commons licenceSome newspapers really aren’t fit to line your shoes. I’ve just posted a slightly different version of the following message on A Death in Hong Kong, the blog covering reactions to the disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores in Hong Kong. Today the South China Morning Post undertook an exercise in childish smearing – reporting unsubstantiated allegations about Vicenta that could only have been motivated by sensationalism. I haven’t named the reporter in case any legal complications arise, but it won’t be hard to figure out who wrote the piece if you check back through my earlier posts on the case.

Allegations Without Evidence

The South China Morning Post today, Sunday 4 May, published unsubstantiated allegations about Vicenta Flores under the headline “Occult link to drowned maid”.

An article on page 3 (full online text for subscribers only) mentioned police asking Vicenta’s sister Irene about:

an “occult-like” paper written in Latin that was found among her dead sister’s belongings.

Members of the Justice for Vicky Flores support group, of which I’m a member, were aware of the paper more than a week ago, but had not commented on it because it’s still in police custody as part of an ongoing investigation.

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Death and Uncertainty

3 May 2008

More Questions in Hong Kong

Life uncertain, by Robby Garbett, with Creative Commons licenceThe old line tells us that there’s nothing as certain as death and taxes. But in Hong Kong that never holds true – tax arrangements change from year to year, and death doesn’t always bring closure. While preparing a post on perceptions of poverty today I realised that something important has been missing in my coverage of the still unexplained disappearance and death of Vicenta Flores. I mentioned in an earlier post that two other Filipino women died in Hong Kong on the day Vicenta disappeared, both apparent suicides. But for one of those women that presumption is no longer true, and another Filipina died in mysterious circumstances just over a week later.

Four unexplained deaths in 10 days and so few answers.

The Sun, one of the Filipino community newspapers here in Hong Kong, reported in its print edition earlier this week that the Coroner had asked police to further investigate the case of Carolina Dacquil, who fell to her death from a ninth floor window on 7 April. She had previously been thought to have committed suicide due to financial difficulties. Regardless of how many Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong are presumed to have financial difficulties, hasty conclusions in that regard should hardly be the hallmark of justice. So the Coroner’s request is encouraging, even though it casts significant doubt over the suitability of police procedure.

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