Ram Puneet Tiwary: Looking back, I can't recognise myself

About the case

Eleven years ago, Mr Ram Puneet Tiwary shared a flat in Sydney with fellow Singaporeans Tay Chow Lyang, 26, and Tony Tan Poh Chuan, 27.

All three were enrolled at the University of New South Wales.

On Sept 15, 2003, Mr Tay was bludgeoned to death in their flat and Mr Tan was murdered there later, after he returned from a lecture.

Mr Tiwary, who was in the flat at the time, says he was woken from a nap by the sounds of violence, hid in his room and later called the police.

He was arrested and charged with both murders in May 2004. Prosecuting officers said his motive was that he owed Mr Tay A$5,045 (S$ 5,600) in rent and killed Mr Tan to cover up the dispute.

A 12-member jury pronounced him guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole in 2006.

Mr Tiwary appealed.

In 2008, a three-judge court ruled for a retrial, as the earlier trial had been improperly conducted.

The court found that the judge at the original trial gave the jury improper instructions on some of the evidence, and that there had been evidence which did not support a conviction.

At the retrial in 2009, the defence showed chat messages from Mr Tay as evidence that Mr Tiwary had been paying his share of expenses.

After 17 hours of deliberation, the jury delivered another guilty verdict. Mr Tiwary was sentenced to jail for 48 years.

A second appeal in 2012 focused on the facts that Mr Tay, a conscientious student, missed a lecture the day of his death and Mr Tan got into a white car with three still unidentified people not long before he and his flatmate were found dead.

The Court of Criminal Appeal acquitted Mr Tiwary of the murder charges, citing that the two victims had behaved unusually on the day of their murders and that there was a lack of forensic material linking him to the deaths.

Australian prosecutors announced that they would not appeal against the acquittal.

Mr Tiwary returned to Singapore on Sept 19, 2012.

Ram Puneet Tiwary is haunted by the idea that he could have saved at least one of his flatmates on Sept 15, 2003, if he had left his room to help when he heard the sounds of an attack.

"The thing that disturbs me most in hindsight is not going outside. That feeling of, 'Geez, you should have gone outside, maybe things would have been different,'" he tells The Sunday Times.

Now 35, this is his first media interview since he was arrested in Sydney in 2004 and charged with the murder of his Singaporean flatmates Tay Chow Lyang, 26, and Tony Tan Poh Chuan, 27.

His two trials, appeals and eventual acquittal in 2012 after eight years in jail are covered in his memoir, 99 Months: The Case Of The Sydney Double Murders, published by Marshall Cavendish and in stores today.

Mr Tiwary quotes autopsy and police reports in the book which focuses on the double murder and the aftermath rather than his relationship with the two men who were his fellow students at the University of New South Wales. He does write of them as "good friends" but will not say more in the interview.

He says: "I don't want it to be, 'Oh no, we were such good friends' because that has nothing to do with what happened. You could be the best of friends or you could be strangers. The allegation was that I killed two people over A$5,045. Even if we were the worst enemies, it doesn't make a difference. I have no desire to convince people of what we were. They knew what we were, I don't have to talk about this."

He does not like to reveal his feelings, let alone say who he is dating or what he does for a living now. He will say he is no longer based in Singapore and never completed the mechanical engineering degree that took him to Sydney.

He says the media silence until now was out of respect for his former flatmates' families and also because he fears being in the spotlight.

He does not plan to hold a book launch. He flinches when the photographer adjusts the book in front of him and it takes an hour to get him to relax for the camera.

He sees his reticence as protecting his family. His parents and two brothers never knew of his physical and mental suffering during his 99 months in jail. Some family members have found it hard to read his book, breaking down in tears midway.

"Tears, which are so horrible. I never spoke to them about what happened. Speaking to friends is easier because parents are so protective," he says.

After he was acquitted and finally released from jail, a friend asked him to write "a series of notes" to her about what he had been through. It became a book as he realised that even friends following the news reports had mistaken ideas about the trials.

"Six hours of testimony going into one article doesn't really tell you what happened in court. My friend was very insistent, 'You've got to get this story out.'"

In the book, he writes that he slept through Mr Tay's killing, was woken by the struggle that led to Mr Tan's death, but was too afraid to go outside. He barricaded his door and called the police later.

He alleges that evidence supporting his version of events was either misplaced or suppressed by local police. The first video of him being questioned after the murders was reported as "missing" before the first trial. He says it would have silenced allegations that he had a lot of blood on him and was cleaning it off as officers arrived.

In the interview, as in the book, he describes himself as "the third victim of Sept 15, 2003" for being sent to jail as a killer. He says he was attacked several times by other inmates. He has reduced feeling in his right thumb and a scar on his right shoulder.

How did he survive? "You see somebody do a drug deal, you look the other way, you see somebody shiv (knife) somebody, you look the other way and slowly people realise you're not there as a dog to inform on anyone."

He developed an obsession with cleanliness in jail, soaking letters in disinfectant before reading them.

At one point, he decided that if his appeals failed, he would kill himself. "It's hard to explain what jail does to you. Looking back, you can't recognise yourself. Being put in a cage really does make you an animal."

Inmates' channels to the outside world are so restricted that he found out about his acquittal only a day after the judgment on July 26, 2012 when another inmate showed him the newspaper. He tore the article out and kept it on him even as he was moved into immigration custody and eventually returned to Singapore on Sept 19 that year. "I read it so many times."

Freed, he went travelling for four to six months in South America and around Asia - he declines to say exactly where, as it relates to his current occupation. He also did odd jobs as a labourer. "It was so good to be able to work on the outside and look in every direction and there were no buildings. It was the environment more than the work that drove me."

A long-distance runner until being confined to a cell, he relished being able to walk for miles at will. "Just walking down a street after having not been able to take six steps in one direction - the thoughts that come to you, the realisation that comes to you, the sense of peace, yeah, walking does that."

99 Months is meant as a book that will help him close a painful chapter in his life. But he is steeled for bad press.

"You can't change people's opinion of you, no matter how much you talk with them and they are entirely entitled to their opinion. I'm not trying to convince everybody, 'No, no, no, I didn't do anything,' there's no point."

He would like the families of his former flatmates to read the book but has not approached them since the acquittal.

"How would you go about contacting them? They have their own idea of how things happened. Whatever closure they got - the trials, the appeals, the results, I don't know how that affects them. Perhaps it's too traumatic and I don't want to initiate that trauma," he says.

This article was first published on Sep 28, 2014.
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