An Indonesian domestic helper has been jailed for four weeks in the first mask theft case to hit Hong Kong's courts since the deadly coronavirus first gripped the city.
The 35-year-old, named Masriki, on Monday was found guilty of stealing 5,500 masks while posing as their rightful buyer during a pair of trips to a small Causeway Bay shop on February 14.
Masriki was ordered to compensate the second of her two victims HK$12,000 (US$1,544) by March 9 for 3,500 stolen masks, or serve another 10 days in prison. The first batch of 2,000 masks was recovered and returned to their owner.
The case was the first among a string of mask thefts to be brought to court, as the city struggles to solve an acute shortage driven by fears surrounding Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
At Monday's hearing at Tuen Mun Court, Masriki's defence counsel pleaded for leniency, saying the helper faced financial difficulties at home, but Magistrate Kelly Shui said imprisonment was necessary.
"At this difficult time, it's time to help " not the time to rob, steal or defraud," the magistrate said. "She's out of her mind."
Prosecutors said Masriki made two trips to the shop at Causeway Bay Centre on Sugar Street on Friday. At 10.30am, she collected 2,000 masks ordered by a Indonesian buyer called Sri Yatin. Just a half hour later, she returned to collect another order of 3,500, bought by a buyer named Ita.
Believing she was the genuine buyer, she was given the boxes of face masks, which she then immediately sold or gave away.
The first batch was sold to a man in Causeway Bay for HK$7,140, while the larger, second batch of 3,500 was given to an Indonesian woman with whom Masriki claimed to have lost contact. It was unclear if the second batch was sold or given away.
At this difficult time, it's time to help " not the time to rob, steal or defraud. She's out of her mindMagistrate Kelly Shui
The theft was discovered at about noon the same day when the second buyer, Ita, went to the shop and discovered her masks had already been collected.
Unfortunately for Masriki, she was back at the shop for a third time and spotted while Ita was still there. She was immediately intercepted and arrested, and admitted stealing the masks.
Masriki pleaded guilty on Monday to two counts of fraud, an offence punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment.
In mitigation, defence counsel Sammy Hui said his client committed the offence due to financial difficulties, as she needed money to pay for her 90-year-old father's medical expenses.
Hui added that Masriki had not gone to the shop with the intention to steal, but had recognised the boxes of face masks while there to collect a parcel of her own, and made the spontaneous decision to pretend to be someone else and collect them.
"She's extremely remorseful," Hui said.
The counsel said Masriki was willing to pay back the HK$12,000 demanded by prosecutors for the missing masks, as she understood she had to bear the consequences of her actions.
But that offer immediately prompted the magistrate to question: "Realistically, how is she going to do that?"
The city's 386,000 foreign domestic helpers are paid a minimum wage of HK$4,630 per month.
Hui later revealed that Masriki had HK$9,000 cash available to her and agreed to an arrangement in which she would have access to phone calls so she could ask her friends for help.
"Your friends have three weeks to come up with HK$3,000 … failing that, it will be 10 days of imprisonment in default," the magistrate warned. "If you will be serving that 10 days, then this HK$3,000 will be waived."
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