SINGAPORE: The case involving the woman who abused her 24-year-old maid by beating, burning and starving her was so egregious that the Attorney-General had directed prosecutors to press for the highest possible charges of murder, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Thursday (Feb 25).
"The first charge was actually intentional murder for which the death penalty could have been the possible punishment. But, because of the evidence that was available, it was then brought down to culpable homicide, under Section 304A of the Penal Code," Mr Shanmugam said.
"That is extremely serious and as we know, the prosecution is asking for life sentence whereas (the) defence is saying 14 years."
Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don was punched, stamped on and starved by her employer until she weighed 24kg days before she died in 2016 from a brain injury. She was about a year into her first job in Singapore.
Employer Gaiyathiri Murugayan, 40, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to 28 charges, including culpable homicide, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation, voluntarily causing hurt by a heated substance and wrongful restraint. Another 87 charges will be considered in sentencing.
The High Court heard that she suffered from major depressive disorder and obsessive compulsive personality disorder, both of which substantially contributed to her offences. She qualified for the defence of diminished responsibility, which resulted in the murder charge being downgraded.
READ: Woman admits killing maid; starved her to 24kg and assaulted her almost daily in 'utterly inhumane' case
On why Gaiyathiri's case took some time to be addressed in court, Mr Shanmugam said it is a complex homicide case involving a large number of offences.
"Lots of CCTV footage were looked at in formulating the charges. There were numerous psychiatric assessments undertaken by different experts from IMH (Institute of Mental Health) as well as experts engaged by the defence in order to assess the mental state of Madam Gaiyathiri at the times of the offence," he told reporters.
"Psychiatric assessments took considerable time. They were only completed in April 2020."
Mr Shanmugam added that it is “not easy” to gather independent evidence in such cases. “The (victim) has passed away. And you will only have the word of the people who are accused, or related family members,” he said.
"Nevertheless, because of the very thorough work that was undertaken and the availability of the CCTV cameras, the evidence that was put forward, and the assessment of the psychiatric evidence, both prosecution and defence, Madam Gaiyathiri decided to plead guilty to a charge of culpable homicide."
READ: Myanmar maid's death: Employment agent spoke to helper on 2 occasions but did not pick up any issues, says MOM
Mr Shanmugam also expressed “complete abhorrence” over the case of abuse, saying that the “bestiality” of Gaiyathiri’s conduct was “shocking”.
“Ordinary people are capable of extreme evil, and evil lurks in people who seem ordinary,” he said.
“There are two pillars in any society to keep evil in check: One is education. Two, we need rule of law that keeps such evil in check. The law has to come down with full force when the rules are broken.”
The penalties for culpable homicide not amounting to murder are life imprisonment and caning, or up to 20 years' jail, a fine and caning. Women cannot be caned.
Gaiyathiri’s mother Prema Naraynasamy, and husband Kevin Chelvam are also accused of playing a role in Ms Piang Ngaih Don’s death. Their cases are still before the courts.
Chelvam, a police officer, has been suspended from the force since 2016. He was charged with offences including causing grievous hurt, beating Ms Piang Ngaih Don with a bat and lying to the police to conceal evidence.
Mr Shanmugam said Chelvam will face disciplinary proceedings after his criminal case is heard, no matter the outcome.