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Singapore

Woman admits killing maid; starved her to 24kg and assaulted her almost daily in 'utterly inhumane' case

SINGAPORE: Five months into her new maid's employment, a woman began abusing the domestic helper from Myanmar, punching and stamping on her and starving her until she was only 24kg.

In the days before the 24-year-old victim died of brain injury with severe blunt trauma to her neck, she was starved and tied to a window grille at night and assaulted if she tried to rummage for food from the dustbin.

Gaiyathiri Murugayan, 40, pleaded guilty on Tuesday (Feb 23) 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 prosecution is seeking life imprisonment - but the judge adjourned sentencing to a later date as he considers the case.

SHE CAME TO SINGAPORE FOR HER FIRST OVERSEAS JOB

The court heard that the victim, Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don, came to Singapore to work for Gaiyathiri in May 2015 in what was her first job overseas as she was poor and needed to support her three-year-old son.

She agreed to Gaiyathiri's conditions of employment - not to have a handphone or any day off, as Gaiyathiri did not want her to mix with other maids, in return for more pay and home rest.

Gaiyathiri grew unhappy with the victim soon after she began working for the household - which comprised Gaiyathiri, her husband, Gaiyathiri's mother and co-accused Prema Naraynasamy, Gaiyathiri's two children and two tenants.

Finding that the victim was slow, unhygienic and ate too much, Gaiyathiri established a strict set of rules that the victim had to obey. Initially, she responded to a breaking of these rules by shouting, but began physically abusing the helper from October 2015.

Closed-circuit television footage from cameras installed in the house to monitor the victim and the children showed the abuse carried out in the last 35 days of the victim's life.

She was given only little food including sliced bread soaked in water, cold food from the fridge or some rice, and allowed to sleep for about five hours a night. She lost 15kg during her employment, losing about 38 per cent of her body weight in about 14 months. 

She was given no privacy - being forced to shower and go to the toilet with the door open while Gaiyathiri or Prema watched - and wore multiple layers of face masks as Gaiyathiri found her dirty and did not want to look at her face.

Gaiyathiri assaulted the victim almost daily, often several times a day, by slapping, pushing, punching and kicking her. She also stamped on the helper while she was on the floor, and attacked her with objects including a broom, a metal ladle and other hard objects.

She also lifted the helper up by her hair, grabbed it and shook her violently and pulled out a clump of her hair. On one occasion in June 2016, Gaiyathiri approached the victim while she was ironing clothes and pressed the hot iron against her forehead. Before shifting the iron to the victim's forearm, Gaiyathiri said: "If you like to burn people thing, how would you like if I burn your hand".

The court was shown multiple clips of the abuse. The victim appeared frail and with her hair tied up in knots that Gaiyathiri would hold onto while flinging her around. She was shown doing her chores, with Gaiyathiri approaching her and assaulting her, throwing her around like a ragdoll. The victim did not retaliate.

During the 12 nights before her death, the victim had her hands tied by a string to a window grille, so that she would not leave the room. She was not given medical treatment for her wounds, and was last taken to a clinic in May 2016 for a runny nose, cough and swelling on her legs.

When the helper removed her face mask and sunglasses in the clinic, the doctor saw bruises around her eye sockets and cheeks, but Gaiyathiri explained these away by saying the victim fell down frequently as she was clumsy.

She turned down the doctor's suggestions for further tests of the victim's swollen legs, as there could be underlying conditions.

THE NIGHT OF THE INCIDENT

The assault that led to the victim's death occurred from the night of Jul 25, 2016 into the morning of Jul 26, 2016.

The helper was doing laundry at about 11.40pm on Jul 25, 2016, when Gaiyathiri felt she was too slow. She hit her with a clenched fist, pulled her hair and told her to move faster. When the victim began swaying on her feet at the entrance to the toilet, Gaiyathiri told her not to "dance", before striking her head with a detergent bottle.

The victim fell backwards, grew disorientated and could not stand up after her legs gave out from under her. Gaiyathiri called Prema over, and together they assaulted the victim, splashing water on her. Prema dragged the victim across the kitchen and living room to the bedroom, where Gaiyathiri kicked her in the stomach and Prema punched and strangled her.

When the victim asked Gaiyathiri if she could have dinner, Gaiyathiri replied that she had given her food earlier but she was too sleepy to eat at that time. She could now sleep without dinner, said Gaiyathiri.

She tied the victim's wrist forcefully to the window grille just before midnight and kicked her in the stomach, before leaving her on the floor in wet clothes.

Around 5am, Gaiyathiri tried to wake the victim up, but she did not wake up. Angered, Gaiyathiri kicked and stamped on the woman's head and neck repeatedly, lifted her up by her hair and pulled her head so that her neck extended backwards and strangled her.

Prema was also in the room and tried to wake the victim up. When the woman remained motionless, the two women grew concerned. Their attempts to revive her were futile, but they left her there until 9.22am when Prema propped the victim up and tried to feed her a cup of Nestum cereal beverage while warming her hands and legs.

After Prema suggested they call a doctor as the victim was not moving, Gaiyathiri called the clinic for a house call, lying that she had found the victim on the kitchen floor and believed she had fallen.

When the doctor asked her to call an ambulance as she could arrive only later, Gaiyathiri insisted on waiting. While Prema and Gaiyathiri waited, they changed the victim out of her wet clothes and carried her to the sofa.

When the doctor arrived at about 10.50am, she saw the victim lying on the sofa with a gaping mouth, no pulse, cold skin and fixed and dilated pupils. She told the two women that the victim was dead and asked them to call the police.

READ: Myanmar maid's death: Employment agent spoke to helper on 2 occasions but did not pick up any issues, says MOM

PRETENDED TO BE SHOCKED, CLAIMED VICTIM HAD BEEN MOVING

Gaiyathiri and Prema expressed shock and claimed that the victim had been moving minutes before the doctor arrived, and asked if they could call an ambulance instead. The doctor insisted that she would wait for the police to arrive and asked Gaiyathiri if she had fed or beaten the victim, as she was very thin, even thinner than her last clinic visit.

Prema replied that the victim "ate a lot", and the doctor eventually called the police herself. Paramedics pronounced her dead at 11.30am, while the police asked Gaiyathiri why she had not called for an ambulance. Gaiyathiri replied that the victim's condition was "not serious" and that she was "only weak".

An autopsy found 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries on the victim's body. She died of hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy - a type of brain injury - with severe blunt trauma to the neck. She was emaciated and in a poor nutritional state and would have died of starvation if it had been sustained further.

The doctor found that the repeated choking of the victim had led to the brain injury, and that Gaiyathiri holding the victim by the neck and shaking her like a rag doll is likely to have fractured the victim's hyoid bone in her throat.

The fracture itself was not fatal, but indicated a very violent blow, and the degree of force could be the tipping point that led to irreversible damage in the brain, with the victim's poor nutrition compounding her inability to tolerate the neck trauma.

Gaiyathiri was assessed multiple times by psychiatrists, with a 2019 report concluding that she suffered from major depressive disorder and obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), both of which substantially contributed to her offences.

She qualified for the defence of diminished responsibility, with her OCPD a significant risk factor for aggravating the severity of depressive symptoms of peripartum onset. It would have worsened her depression to an extent that partially impaired her mental responsibility for her actions, the court heard.

READ: Husband of maid killer suspended from police force since 2016, accused of abusing victim and removing CCTV

PROSECUTION SEEKS LIFE IMPRISONMENT

The prosecution, led by Senior Counsel Mohamed Faizal, asked for life imprisonment, saying that this is the only sentence "that would speak to the harms that have been occasioned and the outrage felt by the community by such a shocking series of events".

He said Gaiyathiri abused, starved, tortured and ultimately killed the 24-year-old helper in a manner that would shock anyone's conscience.

"Words like heinous, cruel and 'inhuman' are often used in submissions like these. But rare is a case where even such hyperbole cannot fully capture the indisputable horror and monstrosity of the crimes by an accused person. This is a case where, simply put, words fail us," he said.

"That one human being would treat another in this evil and utterly inhumane manner is cause for the righteous anger of the court; and the law must come down with full force to appropriately vindicate the fundamental values of society and human dignity that have been violated in this case."

Defence lawyers Sunil Sudheesan and Diana Ngiam asked instead for 14 years' jail. Mr Sudheesan said "life imprisonment is not necessary", adding that "anger is for the mob, but sagacity and temperance are for the court".

He said his client's story is "quite a tragic one". She had suffered from postpartum depression from February 2015, which was exacerbated by an abortion she had a year later, and her rationality "was compromised".

"She is very sorry. She begs this court for mercy and she promises this court that she will continue with all the treatments necessary for her well-being," said the lawyer.

Parties will return at a later date for sentencing. 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.

Prema's case is pending, while Gaiyathiri's husband also faces pending charges for maid abuse.

Source: CNA/ll(rw)

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