Maid tortured to death

Employer pleads guilty to 28 charges; life sentence sought

24-year-old maid's ordeal in final month captured on CCTV; defence seeks 14 years' prison term

Among the charges Gaiyathiri Murugayan, seen here in a 2016 photo, admitted to, the most serious is culpable homicide. For close to 10 months, the maid, Ms Piang Ngaih Don, was physically assaulted almost daily.
Among the charges Gaiyathiri Murugayan, seen here in a 2016 photo, admitted to, the most serious is culpable homicide. For close to 10 months, the maid, Ms Piang Ngaih Don, was physically assaulted almost daily. ST FILE PHOTO

Chilling footage of an emaciated domestic worker being grabbed by the hair and shaken like a rag doll was played in court yesterday.

Her Singaporean employer, the wife of a police officer, admitted yesterday that she had starved, tortured and ultimately killed her 24-year-old Myanmar helper.

Prosecutors are seeking life imprisonment for Gaiyathiri Murugayan, 40, after she pleaded guilty to 28 charges, the most serious being one of culpable homicide.

For close to 10 months, the maid, Ms Piang Ngaih Don, was physically assaulted almost daily, deprived of food and rest, and made to shower and relieve herself with the toilet door open.

In the last 12 days of her life, she was tied to the window grille at night while she slept on the floor.

The Myanmar national weighed 24kg when she died on July 26, 2016, from the final assault, having lost 38 per cent of her body weight since she started working for the family on May 28, 2015.

The ordeal she suffered in the last month of her life was captured on closed-circuit television cameras that Gaiyathiri and her husband, Kevin Chelvam, 41, had installed in their Bishan flat to monitor the maid and their two children.

In one incident, the couple's one-year-old son could be seen toddling around as his mother assaulted the maid.

Gaiyathiri's mother, Prema S. Naraynasamy, 61, who often stayed at the flat, was also seen in the footage.

Both Prema and Chelvam face multiple hurt-related charges in connection with the victim. Their cases are pending.

The defence is seeking a jail term of 14 years for Gaiyathiri, noting she developed major depressive disorder while she was pregnant, and this amplified her obsessive compulsive personality disorder.

  • 31

    Number of recent scars found all over the maid's body in an autopsy. There were 47 external injuries.

But prosecutors argued that her psychiatric condition had already been taken into account when the charge was reduced from murder to culpable homicide.

Justice See Kee Oon will give his decision at a later date.

The court heard that Ms Piang, who had a three-year-old son, was working outside Myanmar for the first time and was not allowed to have a mobile phone or any day off.

Gaiyathiri was unhappy with her and felt she was slow, had poor hygiene practices and ate too much.

She established a set of rules and would shout when she felt Ms Piang was being disobedient. This escalated to physical abuse in October 2015.

CCTV footage showed Gaiyathiri pouring cold water on Ms Piang, slapping, pushing, punching, kicking her and stomping on her while she was on the ground.

She also hit Ms Piang with objects like a plastic bottle or metal ladle, pulled her from the floor by the hair, burned her with a heated iron and choked her.

The maid's meals often comprised sliced bread soaked in water, cold food straight from the refrigerator or some rice at night.

She was allowed to sleep for only about five hours a night and did her chores wearing multiple layers of face masks as Gaiyathiri found her unhygienic.

Between 11.40pm and 11.55pm on July 25, 2016, the maid was assaulted for being too slow in doing laundry.

Gaiyathiri and Prema poured water on her and assaulted her together, and left her tied to the window grille without any dinner.

The next day, between around 4.55am and 5am, Gaiyathiri kicked and stomped on Ms Piang's head and neck area, grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back such that her neck extended backwards twice, and choked her repeatedly.

At 7.30am, Ms Piang was found motionless and Chelvam left for work. After failing to revive her, Prema suggested they call for a doctor.

Gaiyathiri called a nearby clinic between 9.30am and 9.45am and asked for a house call, lying to the nurse that she found the victim on the kitchen floor.

Dr Grace Kwan, through the nurse, suggested calling for an ambulance, but Gaiyathiri insisted on waiting for her. While waiting, the two women changed Ms Piang out of her wet clothes.

When Dr Kwan arrived at about 10.50am, she told both women the maid was dead. They expressed shock and lied that she had moved just minutes earlier. Gaiyathiri also denied beating the victim.

Dr Kwan eventually called for an ambulance. Paramedics arrived at about 11.30am and pronounced Ms Piang dead.

An autopsy found 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries all over the maid's body.

It found that the repeated choking of the victim had led to oxygen deprivation to the brain, which resulted in death.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2021, with the headline Employer pleads guilty to 28 charges; life sentence sought. Subscribe