SINGAPORE – In a turn of events, a 41-year-old housewife who starved, tortured and ultimately killed her domestic worker from Myanmar has changed lawyers and is making further moves in a bid to avoid life in prison.
Gaiyathiri Murugayan, the wife of a policeman, pleaded guilty in February this year to 28 charges, the most serious being culpable homicide, for which prosecutors had sought the maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The other charges were mostly hurt-related offences for physical abuse she inflicted on 24-year-old Piang Ngaih Don, who weighed a mere 24kg when she died from the final assault on July 26, 2016.
Gaiyathiri was due to be sentenced on Thursday (April 29) by High Court judge See Kee Oon. However, it emerged during the hearing that she had changed lawyers last month.
Justice See noted that Gaiyathiri “appeared to have changed her position about maintaining her plea of guilt” and asked her new lawyer, Mr Joseph Chen, to clarify whether she wanted to retract her plea of guilt.
Mr Chen said she wanted to submit a further plea for leniency and that he would be asking the prosecution to consider further reducing the culpable homicide charge.
Gaiyathiri’s charge had been reduced from murder, as she was assessed to have developed major depressive disorder while she was pregnant with her son, which reduced her responsibility for her actions.
After a short stand-down, Mr Chen confirmed to the court that she was not retracting her plea.
However, he asked for time to file a further mitigation plea to support her case that her culpability was reduced.
He said the mitigation will focus on “stressors in her feeling an increase in tension due to her worry about the children’s health”.
He added that he had been given instructions to apply for a gag order on the case.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir said the prosecution will respond on the basis for such an order when it is made.
The case was adjourned for Mr Chen to file a further mitigation plea by May 28. The case is tentatively fixed to be mentioned in court again on June 22.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Mr Chen said he would be making representations to the prosecution for the culpable homicide charge to be reduced from Section 304(a) to Section 304(b), which carried a maximum jail term of 10 years in 2016.
Camera captured ordeal
The ordeal that Ms Piang suffered in the last month of her life was captured on surveillance cameras that Gaiyathiri and her husband, Kevin Chelvam, had installed in their Bishan flat to monitor the maid and their two children.
Ms Piang was physically assaulted almost daily, often several times a day.
Surveillance footage showed Gaiyathiri pouring cold water on Ms Piang, slapping, pushing, punching, kicking her and stomping on her while she was on the floor.
She was also seen hitting Ms Piang with objects like a plastic bottle or metal ladle, pulling her from the floor by the hair and shaking her violently, burning her with a heated iron and choking her.
The maid was deprived of food and rest; her meals often comprised sliced bread soaked in water, cold food straight from the refrigerator or some rice at night.
She was allowed to sleep for only about five hours a night and did her chores wearing multiple layers of face masks, as Gaiyathiri found her unhygienic.
She was also made to shower and relieve herself with the toilet door open.
In the last 12 days of her life, she was tied to the window grille at night while she slept on the floor.
Ms Piang had begged her employer not to do so, but Gaiyathiri told the maid that she “deserved” to be tied up, as she had sneaked out at night to take food.
Chelvam, 42, a police staff sergeant who was suspended from service on Aug 8, 2016, faces multiple charges in connection with the abuse and death of Ms Piang.
These include a charge for removing the cameras in an attempt to shield his wife and mother-in-law from legal punishment.
Gaiyathiri’s mother, Prema S. Naraynasamy, 62, who often stayed with the couple in the flat, was also charged in 2016.
Their cases are pending in court.
No day off
The court heard that Ms Piang, who had a three-year-old son, began working for the family on May 28, 2015. She was not allowed to have a mobile phone or any day off.
Gaiyathiri was unhappy with her and felt she was slow, had poor hygiene practices and ate too much.
She established a set of rules and would shout when she felt Ms Piang was being disobedient. This escalated to physical abuse in October 2015.
Ms Piang last went for a medical check-up on May 23, 2016 at the Bishan Grace Clinic.
The doctor saw bruises around the maid’s eye sockets and cheeks and mild swelling on both feet, but Gaiyathiri claimed this was because Ms Piang fell down frequently.
On July 25, 2016, between 11.40pm and 11.55pm, the maid, already weak from starvation and prolonged abuse, was assaulted by Gaiyathiri and Prema for being too slow in doing laundry.
They poured water on her, dragged her to the bedroom where they kicked and punched her, and left her tied to the window grille without any dinner.
The next day, at about 5am, Gaiyathiri kicked and stomped on Ms Piang’s head and neck area, grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back such that her neck extended backwards twice, and choked her.
At 7.30am, Ms Piang was found motionless and Chelvam left for work. After failing to revive her, Prema suggested they call for a doctor.
Gaiyathiri called the clinic between 9.30am and 9.45am and asked for a house call, lying to the nurse that she found the victim on the kitchen floor.
Gaiyathiri rejected a suggestion to call for an ambulance and insisted on waiting for Dr Grace Kwan. While waiting, Gaiyathiri and Prema changed Ms Piang out of her wet clothes.
When Dr Kwan arrived at about 10.50am, she told both women the maid was dead. They expressed shock and lied that she had moved just minutes earlier.
Dr Kwan eventually called for an ambulance. Paramedics arrived at about 11.30am and pronounced Ms Piang dead.
An autopsy found 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries all over the maid’s body.
It found that the repeated choking of the victim had led to oxygen deprivation to the brain, which resulted in death.
Better protection for maids
In the wake of the case, the Government reviewed three key areas to ensure better protection for domestic workers.
These include safeguards against abusive employers, the reporting system for doctors who examine domestic helpers and a look at how the community can play a role in flagging possible abuse.
Under a new initiative, which started on April 5, officers appointed by the Manpower Ministry will meet maids and employers at their homes.
These officers will highlight safe working conditions and the channels where maids can get help, and will also check on the maid’s living and working conditions.