Nepali asylum seeker gets two months in jail for stealing rice packets from Hong Kong store

Jasmine Siu

A Nepali asylum seeker who stole six packets of rice from a Hong Kong supermarket with another man has been jailed for two months amid a food shortage scare caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

West Kowloon Court heard Raj Sharma, 21, admitted to stealing the rice “out of greed” after a security guard caught him carrying two packets out of Aeon Store in Whampoa last Friday.

But Sharma told investigators it was not his idea to commit the theft, and that he was “invited” to take part and deliver the items to an unknown man at a park on Temple Street in Kowloon, in exchange for food and money.

His Bangladeshi co-defendant, Riyad Hossain, 33, who was accused of stealing the four remaining packets of rice, has asked for more time to seek legal advice after prosecutors linked him to four other cases of theft at the same store, between February 23 and March 17.

Many Hongkongers thronged supermarkets to stock up on rice, amid worries that Vietnamese authorities might ban rice exports to ensure domestic food security. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The incidents came to light as many Hongkongers thronged supermarkets to stock up on rice, amid worries that Vietnamese authorities might ban rice exports to ensure domestic food security.

Court documents showed both the defendants reported being holders of recognisance forms, which prohibited them from taking up any employment. They also had no fixed abode in the city.

The pair stood next to each other in the dock but did not interact as their interpreters translated the English hearing to them in their respective languages.

They were jointly charged with one count of theft, alleging that they stole six packets of rice, valued at HK$455.4 (US$58), from Aeon Store in Whampoa Garden at about 6pm on March 27.

Hossain faces four additional counts of theft, for allegedly stealing another 10 packets of rice, four cans of milk powder, and a backpack on four other occasions.

Two arrested for allegedly stealing rice from Aeon supermarket in Hong Kong

Aeon Stores (Hong Kong) Company was said to have suffered a total loss of HK$2,296.8 from these thefts.

Sharma had no prior convictions before he pleaded guilty on Monday.

In mitigation, his defence lawyer revealed that he was a torture claimant living on subsidies from a non-government organisation, the International Social Service, since he arrived in the city from Nepal last year.

He called the theft an isolated incident and pleaded for a lenient sentence such as a fine.

People are panic buying protective gear and essential commodities amid the coronavirus pandemic in Hong Kong. Photo: Sam Tsang

But Principal Magistrate Peter Law Tak-chuen observed that Sharma had been “acting in concert” with another party, which made his crime very serious even if he did not initiate the theft.

So the magistrate adopted a starting point of sentence at three months, before reducing it by one-third to credit the guilty plea.

Meanwhile, he gave Hossain six more weeks to consult legal advice and gather documents, and scheduled the case to return on May 11.

But Hossain was expected to return to court on April 6 to renew his bail application, after Law rejected his first bid on Monday.

Theft carries a maximum sentence of 10 years upon conviction in Hong Kong.

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