Dubbed by Justice See Kee Oon as one of the worst cases of culpable homicide the Singapore courts have heard to date, the High Court on Tuesday (22 June) sentenced 41-year-old Gaiyathiri Murugayan to 30 years of jail for abuse that led to the death of her domestic worker in 2016.
Gaiyathiri in February admitted to 28 charges including culpable homicide, voluntarily causing grievous hurt by starvation, and wrongful restraint against then-24-year-old Ms Piang Ngaih Don, who was under her employment for 10 months.
Ms Piang weighed only 24kg when she passed away on 26 July 2016. Autopsy results revealed that she sustained 31 recent scars and 47 external injuries.
Gaiyathiri was initially charged with murder, but due to mitigating factors related to her mental disorders such as major depressive disorder, the charge was reduced to culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
In deciding on the 30-year jail term, Justice See took into consideration another 87 similar charges based on abusive acts committed over two months.
Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Mohamed Faizal Mohamed Abdul Kadir, who leads the prosecution team in the case, reiterated their push for the maximum sentence of life imprisonment regardless of her psychiatric conditions, as Gaiyathiri’s torture was heinous and horrific enough to warrant such a jail term.
Justice See, however, said that her mental disorders were a significant and relevant factor that could not be set aside in sentencing. The judge remarked that had it not been the case, there would have been “little hesitation” on his part to hand down life imprisonment to Gaiyathiri.
He noted that Gaiyathiri has been responsive to psychiatric treatment and does not appear to pose a risk of re-offending. Such is different from other culpable homicide cases in which life imprisonment was meted out, he added.
“The sentence should signal clearly societal outrage and abhorrence for these offences,” said Justice See.
“Although I am not persuaded of life imprisonment for culpable homicide, an extended custodial sentence is neither crushing nor disproportionate to her offences,” he added.
Gaiyathiri’s new defence counsel, Joseph Chen, had asked the court to hand his client a jail term of around eight to nine years instead, after deciding to no longer seek a reduction of the culpable homicide charge, arguing on the basis of Gaiyathiri’s record of not abusing her first four helpers.
Mr Chen also sought a gag order to stop any further reporting on the case for the purpose of shielding Gaiyathiri’s children from negative media publicity.
Shocking footage of Ms Piang’s ordeal — which was played in court at trial — was captured by CCTVs installed around the flat by Gaiyathiri and her policeman husband, Kevin Chelvam to monitor the domestic worker and their two children.
Some of the footage revealed that among instances of abuse committed by Gaiyathiri against Ms Piang included dragging the domestic worker by her hair.
Gaiyathiri’s mother, Prema S Naraynasamy, was also allegedly involved in abusing Ms Piang. The abuse took place on a near-daily basis, and was frequently repeated throughout the day.
Chelvam, 42, has since been suspended from his duties. He and Prema, 61, were respectively slapped with five and 49 charges in relation to the abuse of Ms Piang. Their cases are currently before the courts.
Ms Piang began working for Chelvam’s family on 28 May 2015. Chelvam is Ms Piang’s first, last, and only employer in Singapore.
The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on 24 Feb that Chelvam had employed four other migrant domestic workers before hiring Ms Piang, but had not received any complaints or “adverse feedback” from the workers about Chelvam or his family.
Reports on Ms Piang’s case shocked the entire country, with netizens pointing out that MOM not receiving any complaints or adverse feedback from the four workers does not indicate that they were treated well by the employer, but rather because they had to “suffer in silence”.