Prosecutors seek life term for cop's wife who starved and abused maid who died

Gavel stock photo
Gavel stock photo

SINGAPORE — In May 2015, Myanmar national Piang Ngaih Don left her three-year-old son and travelled to Singapore for the first time to escape poverty and provide for her family.

She was willing to work in the household of Gaiyathiri Murugayan, her policeman-husband Kevin Chelvam, their two young children and Gaiyathiri's mother Prema S Naraynasamy, and agreed to their conditions of employment: no handphone and no day off.

But in July 2016, Piang, 24, died at her employers' hands from brain damage due to oxygen depravation from repeated choking, a court heard on Tuesday (23 February).

She weighed just 24kg, having lost 38 per cent of her initial weight of 39kg.

There were 47 external injuries over her body, including the scalp, head, neck, cheek, mouth, chin, forearms, right shoulder, hip, right abdomen, right leg, both thighs and buttocks. The hyoid bone in her neck was broken due to strangulation.

There were also 31 fresh scars all over her body, including her ears, face, jaw, chin, neck, chest, hip, forearms, left hand, left shoulder, right abdomen, and both feet.

At the High Court on Tuesday (23 February), Gaiyathiri, 40, pleaded guilty to 28 charges involving culpable homicide, grievous hurt, hurt, wrongful restraint and criminal intimidation. Another 87 related charges will be considered when she is sentenced at a later date.

All the offences were captured by CCTV cameras in the house, which had a storage capacity of 35 days.

Gaiyathiri was found by a government psychiatrist to have been suffering from depression and obsessive compulsive personality disorder, which partially impaired her mental responsibility for her acts.

The prosecution is seeking a life term for what it described as "indisputable horror and monstrosity of the crimes".

Kevin, 41, and Prema, 61, face hurt-related charges which are pending before the State Courts.

Victim lived under strict rules

Gaiyathiri was unhappy with Piang from early on as she thought the latter was slow, had poor hygiene practices and ate too much, the court heard.

"The accused established a strict set of rules involving hygiene and order in the house, which she expected the deceased to obey. The accused would get angry with the deceased whenever she felt the deceased was being disobedient," said Deputy Public Prosecutors Mohamed Faizal, Senthilkumaran Sabapathy and Stephanie Koh.

Initially, Gaiyathiri would raise her voice and shout at the victim. But from October 2015 onwards, she started physically abusing the victim.

Piang was deprived of adequate food and rest. She was only allowed to sleep for about five hours at night. She ate mainly sliced bread soaked in water, cold food from the fridge and/or some rice at night.

"She had to shower and relieve herself with the toilet door open while the accused or Prema watched. She wore multiple layers of face masks as she went about her work in the house as the accused found her unhygienic and also did not want to look at her face," said the prosecutors.

Campaign of torture

For 12 nights from 15 July 2016 till the day she died, Gaiyathiri also tied one of Piang's hands to the window grille at night while she slept on the bedroom floor to prevent her from leaving the room at night to take food.

Gaiyathiri and Prema would, among other things, pour cold water over the victim; slap, push, punch, kick and stomp on the victim; hit her with hard objects such as a plastic bottle, broom, mop, clothes hanger, plate, bamboo pole holder and metal ladle; pull her up from the ground by grabbing her hair; shake or spin her head violently; burn her face and hand with a heated iron; and strangle and choke her.

On 24 June 2016, for instance, Gaiyathiri took the heated steam iron Piang was using to iron clothes and pressed it onto her forehead. Gaiyathiri then told the victim, “If you like to burn people thing (sic), how would you like if I burn your hand”, before pressing the iron onto her right forearm.

Fatal assault leading to death

From about 11.40pm on 25 July 2016 to about 5am the next day, Gaiyathiri repeatedly assaulted Piang as she felt that the victim was doing laundry too slowly. Gaiyathiri first hit her neck with a clenched fist and pulled her hair.

"When she noticed the deceased swaying at the entrance to the kitchen toilet due to the impact from the earlier blows, the accused told the deceased not to 'dance' and to get moving and then hit her on the head with a detergent bottle resulting in her falling backward, becoming disorientated and having difficulty standing up after her legs gave out from under her," said the prosecutors.

Gaiyathiri then called Prema over and for the next 15 minutes, mother and daughter assaulted the helpless and emaciated victim.

"Prema poured a basin of water on the deceased and sprayed water from the toilet hose at her to wake her up. Prema told the deceased to go change out of her wet clothes but the deceased was too weak to stand and so Prema dragged her on the floor across the kitchen and living room to the bedroom. Inside the bedroom, the accused kicked her once on her body in her stomach. Prema punched her once on her neck area, and Prema strangled her neck," said prosecutors.

Gaiyathiri rejected Piang's request for food and tied her hand to the window grille. She also kicked the victim's stomach and left her on the bedroom floor in her wet clothes.

Shortly after midnight, Gaiyathiri kicked the victim once more and told her to wake up later in the morning when the alarm rang.

At about 5am, Gaiyathiri tried to wake Piang up to no avail. She then assaulted the victim by kicking and stomping on her head and neck area repeatedly; lifting up her body by the hair; grabbing her by the hair and pulling her head back such that her neck extended backwards; strangling her for a few seconds; and grabbing her by the hair and pulling her head back such that her neck extended backwards again and then strangling her.

Gaiyathiri also poured a bottle of water on Piang's face but she remained motionless.

At about 7.30am, Gaiyathiri and her husband Kevin went to check on the victim, who remained motionless. Kevin then left for work.

Doctor found victim dead

At about 9.20am, Prema suggested to Gaiyathiri that they call a doctor. The daughter called a clinic and lied that she found Piang on the kitchen floor and thought that she might have fallen. The doctor suggested that Gaiyathiri call an ambulance in case of head injuries but the latter insisted on waiting for the doctor.

Gaiyathiri and Prema then changed Piang out of her wet clothes from the night before and carried her out of the bedroom and lay her on the sofa in the living room.

At about 10.50am, the doctor arrived and found Piang's skin blue and cold, her mouth gaping, her pupils fixed and dilated, and did not detect any pulse.

When told that the victim was dead, Gaiyathiri and Prema expressed shock and claimed that Piang had been moving just minutes before.

Even when the doctor told them to call the police to report the death, mother and daughter asked if they could call an ambulance instead. When asked by the doctor at one point if Piang had been fed, Prema said she ate a lot.

The doctor insisted that she would wait in the house till the police arrived. After a while, the doctor called for an ambulance herself.

Piang was pronounced dead by paramedics at 11.30am and the police were informed of the unnatural death.

The injuries on the victim's neck were found by a forensic pathologist to be consistent with those caused by fingertips and nails and recently inflicted.

In their sentencing submissions, the prosecutors 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."

"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 is a sentence of imprisonment for life," they added.

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