A 41-year-old woman, who viciously abused her domestic worker almost daily over nine months and starved her till she died in 2016, was sentenced to 30 years’ jail in the High Court today.
Gaiyaithiri Murugayan had “abused, humiliated, tortured and starved” 24-year-old Myanmarese Piang Ngaih Don who was “completely vulnerable and utterly defenceless”, in what was undoubtedly one of the worst cases of culpable homicide that has come before the courts, said Justice See Kee Oon.
The prosecution — led by Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir — had maintained its argument for the maximum sentence of life imprisonment, calling the case especially heinous and horrific to warrant it.
Gaiyathiri’s murder charge had been reduced to culpable homicide not amounting to murder. This was due to her mental disorders, including major depressive disorder, having substantially contributed to her committing the offences.
The Singaporean pleaded guilty in February to 28 offences. Justice See took into consideration another 87 similar charges, stemming from acts of abuse committed over two months, for sentencing.
Following her plea of guilt, Gaiyathiri discharged her previous lawyers. In April, her new defence counsel, Joseph Chen, asked the court to impose a gag order prohibiting further reporting on the case in order to protect her children from adverse media publicity, as well as a reduction of the sentence.
Chen also abandoned his argument for Gaiyathiri’s culpable homicide charge to be reduced and asked for eight to nine years’ jail instead, citing multiple factors such as Gaiyathiri not having abused her first four maids.
Gaiyathiri, he claimed, turned into a maid abuser a few months after giving birth to her second child when she started to suffer from postnatal depression and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
Gaiyathiri took issue with Piang’s poor hygiene practices, which she believed caused her children to fall ill, said Chen.
He added: “Currently, she is back to her previous self of being a non-maid abuser. And what I understand is after she is sentenced, she would need medical help and therapy.”
In response, DPP Faizal said that these points had already been raised by her previous lawyers or were irrelevant to sentencing.
He noted that some instances of Gaiyathiri’s abuse, such as using a hot iron on Piang, had nothing to do with hygiene.
“She has not shown any remorse. She continues making easy attacks on the domestic worker by laying blame on her even when no such blame can be accorded,” the prosecutor told the court. “Violence is a function of how she saw the deceased as a lesser human being.”
In his brief sentencing remarks, Justice See said that the statement of facts and video clips of the abuse, retrieved from closed-circuit television cameras that Gaiyathiri had installed in the flat, told a “shocking story”.
“(Piang) was made to endure agonising physical and psychological harm for a prolonged duration before succumbing to her injuries. The prosecution’s submissions are framed in forcefully emotive terms but words cannot describe the abject cruelty of her actions,” the judge added.
Justice See told the court that he would have had “little hesitation” in imposing life imprisonment if not for her mental disorders, which were a relevant sentencing consideration.
The offence of culpable homicide can attract life imprisonment or up to 20 years’ jail, based on the Penal Code provisions that were in force at the time of her offences.
While the prosecution had argued that the “extreme circumstances” of the case overrode her psychiatric conditions, Justice See said the court could not ignore the latter.
Gaiyathiri is also apparently responsive to psychiatric treatment and appears not to be at risk of re-offending or being a danger to the public, which sets the case apart from other culpable homicide cases where life imprisonment was imposed, the judge noted.
Nevertheless, he said that her claims of remorse must be viewed in the context of her actions on the morning Piang died, when she showed “absolutely no remorse”.
Gaiyathiri had lied to police officers, saying that she found the maid lying on the kitchen floor that morning and had not called an ambulance as Piang’s condition was not serious.
“The sentence should signal clearly societal outrage and abhorrence for these offences. “Although I am not persuaded of life imprisonment for culpable homicide, an extended custodial sentence is neither crushing nor disproportionate to her offences,” he added.
While Gaiyathiri admitted to abusing Piang over a longer period, closed-circuit television cameras that she had installed only kept footage for 35 days.
Investigators could only thus only rely on footage from June 21 to July 26, 2016. These video clips showed several instances of the abuse including Gaiyathiri dragging Piang by the hair.
Gaiyathiri was constantly angry with Piang for perceived unhygienic practices and slowness, physically and verbally abusing the younger woman and depriving her of food and water.
Piang lost 15kg and weighed just 24kg when she died in the family’s three-bedroom flat along Bishan Street 11 on July 26, 2016.
She would assault the maid almost every day, either alone or allegedly with her mother Prema S Naraynasamy, and often several times a day.
On the day Piang died, she had been beaten after Gaiyathiri grew angry that she was too slow in doing the laundry. Piang was then tied to a window grille for several hours.
An autopsy uncovered 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries all over Piang’s body.
Gaiyathiri’s husband, suspended police staff sergeant Kevin Chelvam, 42, and Prema, 61, also respectively face five and 49 charges in relation to the abuse. Their cases are before the courts. — TODAY