KUALA LUMPUR: A Malaysian couple was sentenced to hang for starving their Indonesian maid to death, a defense lawyer said Friday, one of a string of shocking cases spotlighting abuse of domestic helpers in the region.
Isti Komariyah weighed just 26 kg (57 pounds) on her death in Kuala Lumpur in June 2011 from what a court ruled was deliberate starvation, according to Malaysian media reports on the ruling issued Thursday.
“She was 26 and weighed barely 26 kilos when she was taken to the University Malaya Medical Center with bruises and scratch marks on her back, arms and forehead,” The Star newspaper reported.
Fong Kong Meng, 58, and his wife Teoh Ching Yen, 56, consistently withheld food from Isti during the three years she worked for them, the court found.
Isti had weighed 46 kilograms when she first started working for the couple.
Defense counsel Ramkarpal Singh confirmed the sentence to AFP. He said his clients would appeal against the decision on Monday.
Concerns have grown over the vulnerability of millions of Indonesian, Philippine, Cambodian and other domestic workers around Asia and the Middle East, as horrific cases of torture and sometimes killings have been reported.
A Cambodian maid was starved to death in 2012 by her Malaysian employers, earning them 24 years in jail. Cambodia had stopped sending maids a year earlier over previous abuses. A couple in Singapore pleaded guilty to abuse on Thursday after their Indonesian maid lost 20 kilograms from being underfed for seven months, a report said. She was also physically abused.
Hong Kong vowed last week to strengthen oversight of maid employment following the abuse case involving Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, who has been left unable to walk.
Her employer has been arrested and charged with assault.
Jumhur Hidayat, head of Indonesia’s official National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers Abroad, said he was “shocked” by the “harsh” Malaysian sentence.
But he said the agency was receiving an increasing number of abuse reports, blaming weak systems for monitoring the welfare of maids.
“Of course what these people did was inhumane, but with a better system, perhaps it wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“We are looking at including psychological tests and insisting on inspections and interviews with prospective employers.”
A string of cases that exposed the extent of the abuse in 2009 prompted Jakarta to impose a two-year moratorium on sending maids to Malaysia.
Malaysia has taken some steps toward improving maids’ welfare, including giving them at least one day off a week and nearly doubling minimum monthly salaries to 700 ringgit ($210)
However, activists say the new rules are not adequately enforced.
“We want to be serious about human rights abuses, but the death penalty is not a proven deterrent. We cannot leave maids living in isolation with no access to aid when they face problems,” Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Malaysian rights group Suaram, told AFP.
Malaysia has an estimated 400,000 female domestic workers, about half working without legal documents.
Raja Zulkepley Dahalan, head of the Malaysian National Association of Employment Agencies, said he hoped the death sentence “would restore the confidence of source countries that we are serious about tackling maid abuse.”
Saudi Arabia signed a pledge with Indonesia last month to give maids better protection, but activists are demanding further reforms.
In some cases, maids have struck back.
A young Indonesian maid is on trial in Malaysia for allegedly killing her boss by stabbing her 42 times. Her defense says she was abused by the employer.