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SINGAPORE, Feb 23 — Constantly angry with her foreign domestic worker for being slow or unhygienic and eating too much, Gaiyathiri Murugayan installed closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in her flat to monitor the worker and her own young children.
This proved to be her undoing, with the cameras capturing her repeatedly abusing Piang Ngaih Don, a 24-year-old Myanmar national, over nine months.
Piang was deprived of food and water, losing 15kg in the process. She weighed just 24kg when she died on July 26 in 2016.
Today in the High Court, Gaiyathiri, 40, pleaded guilty to 28 charges. These included culpable homicide not amounting to murder, wrongful restraint and causing hurt or grievous hurt to Piang.
Justice See Kee Oon will consider another 87 similar charges for sentencing at a later date.
The prosecution, led by Deputy Chief Prosecutor Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir, argued that the case was “especially heinous and especially horrific” enough to warrant life imprisonment.
“This is a case where, simply put, words fail us. That one human being would treat another in this evil and utterly inhumane manner is cause for the righteous anger of the court,” it added.
Gaiyathiri had rained blows on the worker and Gaiyathiri’s mother Prema S. Naraynasamy allegedly punched the worker’s neck and choked her. They tied her hands to a window grille as they occasionally did, leaving her in the bedroom.
Gaiyathiri and her husband Kevin Chelvam later found Piang motionless. They called a doctor, who discovered that she was already dead at the scene.
An autopsy uncovered 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries scattered all over Piang’s body. Her hyoid bone — a U-shaped bone in the neck that supports the tongue — was also fractured, most likely from Gaiyathiri holding her by the neck and shaking her like a rag doll, a forensic pathologist found.
The prosecution is seeking the maximum sentence of life imprisonment, while Gaiyathiri’s lawyers asked for 14 years’ jail.
She appeared in court sporting long hair and wearing a purple prison jumpsuit, having been in remand since Piang’s death. She kept her head bowed as several CCTV clips of the abuse were played.
After her arrest, she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, which a psychiatrist found had substantially contributed to her committing the offences.
The prosecution reduced her murder charge on account of her mental condition.
Assault on at least 22 occasions
The court heard that Piang began working for the household in May 2015. They were her first employers in Singapore.
Piang, who had a young son in Myanmar, agreed to Gaiyathiri’s employment conditions — that she not have a mobile phone or day off because Gaiyathiri did not want her to mix with other domestic workers, in return for purportedly higher pay and rest at home.
Gaiyathiri grew unhappy with Piang early on in her employment. She established a strict set of rules involving hygiene and order in the three-bedroom flat and she expected Piang to adhere to them.
Gaiyathiri began abusing her verbally by shouting at her but this escalated to physical abuse from October 2015 onwards.
Gaiyathiri would assault her almost every day, either alone or with Prema, and often several times a day. Among other things, they would slap and punch her, pour cold water on her or use objects such as a bamboo pole holder to strike her.
Court documents stated that Gaiyathiri caused hurt to Piang on at least 22 occasions.
Once, Gaiyathiri grew angry that Piang had not properly wiped the stove and kitchen tiles. She slapped and scolded her, grabbing a kitchen knife and pointing it at Piang.
Gaiyathiri’s one-year-old son was present throughout the incident.
Tied her up for 12 consecutive nights
However, the closed-circuit television cameras installed at various parts of the flat only kept footage for 35 days, overwriting the earlier ones automatically. This meant that investigators could only rely on footage from June 21 to July 26, 2016.
During this time, Piang was provided with very little food. Her meals often comprised sliced bread soaked in water, cold food straight from the refrigerator or some rice at night.
She had no privacy, being forced to shower or relieve herself with the toilet door open while Gaiyathiri and Prema watched.
She wore many layers of face masks as she went about her work in the house, because Gaiyathiri seemingly found her unhygienic and did not want to look at her face.
For 12 consecutive nights from July 15, Gaiyathiri tied Piang’s hands to the window grille using a string, leaving Piang to sleep on the bedroom floor. Piang begged to be released but Gaiyathiri told her she deserved to be tied up since she had snuck out at night to get food.
The last time Piang got medical help was on May 23 at Bishan Grace Clinic. Gaiyathiri accompanied her there, where the doctor noticed that she had bruises around both eye sockets, both cheeks and a burn on her arm.
Gaiyathiri told the doctor that Piang frequently fell down and had accidentally burned herself while ironing. The truth was that Gaiyathiri had pressed a heated steam iron to Piang’s arm a few days earlier.
The fatal attack
Between 11.40pm on July 25 and about 5am the next day, CCTV footage captured Gaiyathiri repeatedly assaulting Piang. She was angry that the worker was too slow in doing the laundry.
Gaiyathiri struck Piang on her neck with a clenched fist, pulled her hair and hit her head with a detergent bottle. Piang was so weak at this point that she could barely get up from the toilet floor.
Prema soon joined her daughter, pouring a basin of water on Piang and choking her by the neck, among other acts.
Gaiyathiri tied her to the window grille again and kicked her some more, before trying to wake her up around 5am. She assaulted Piang some more but grew concerned when she remained motionless.
Gaiyathiri and Prema tried to revive her but were unsuccessful.
Around 9.30am, Gaiyathiri called the doctor, who advised them to call an ambulance instead. The doctor soon decided to call 995 herself.
When the doctor got to the flat, she discovered that Piang was dead and later asked if Piang had been fed since she had seemingly lost weight from two months ago. Prema replied that Piang ate a lot.
Paramedics arrived at about 11.30am and formally pronounced the woman dead.
Gaiyathiri lied to police officers that she had found Piang lying on the kitchen floor that morning and did not call an ambulance as Piang’s condition was not serious.
Gaiyathiri’s lawyers, Sunil Sudheesan and Diana Nigam from Quahe Woo & Palmer, revealed in mitigation that she suffered from postpartum depression that set in around February 2015. This was “exaggerated significantly” by the abortion she later had in February 2016. Her children, a daughter and a son, are now aged about eight and five.
“She begs this court for mercy and she promises to continue with the necessary psychiatric treatment,” Sudheesan added.
Gaiyathiri remains in remand in the meantime.
Her mother’s and husband’s court cases are pending. Prema, 61, faces a total of 49 charges while Chelvam, 41, faces five. Chelvam had allegedly removed the CCTV digital video recorder system installed in the flat, and purportedly lied to investigators that their tenants had requested this six months earlier. — TODAY