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Saudi Execution of Sri Lankan Maid Exposes Vulnerability of Foreign Workers

The execution of a Sri Lankan maid, who was charged as a minor with killing a 4-month-old Saudi baby, has drawn attention to the plight of foreign workers in the kingdom, reports Caryle Murphy.
A demonstrator holds an image of Rizana Nafeek, jailed in Saudi Arabia on charges of murdering a four-month-old baby who was in her care, during a protest demanding her release in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Colombo July 8, 2011. Nafeek, arrested in May 2005, is currently facing execution by beheading for the crime; a charge which she has denied. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte (SRI LANKA - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS)

Underscoring the precarious plight of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government Wednesday (Jan. 8) executed a young Sri Lankan housemaid convicted of killing an infant in her care, following what human rights groups have called a flawed trial.

Despite high-level clemency pleas from the Sri Lankan government, Rizana Nafeek, who was 17 at the time of the baby boy’s death in 2005, was executed in Dawadmi, a small town outside Riyadh where she’d been incarcerated for several years, according to a statement by the Saudi Interior Ministry. Saudi executions are usually by beheading.

“We are very sad,” said Azhari Babakar, an employee in the Riyadh law firm that handled her appeals and that until now had been seeking to have Nafeek’s death sentence commuted. Reached by phone, he confirmed Nafeek’s execution.

Nafeek was found guilty of murder by a Saudi court following a 2007 trial at which she had no lawyer or interpreter. Her conviction rested on a confession she purportedly made to police through an interpreter who was not Sri Lankan. His competence to speak Nafeek’s native language of Tamil was never legally established and he later disappeared, according to the Saudi attorney hired to appeal Nafeek’s conviction.

Nafeek later said that she signed the confession, written in Arabic, under duress and that the four-month-old child choked to death while being bottle-fed.

“We’re appalled at this. … She did not have a fair trial,” said Nisha Varia, senior women's rights researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that continues to execute people for crimes committed when they were children.”

Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bans execution for crimes committed when an offender is under 18. According to Human Rights Watch, only three countries — Saudi Arabia, Iran and Yemen — still execute minors. Two others — Pakistan and Sudan — have not formally ended the practice but have not executed a juvenile within the last six years. The United States halted juvenile executions in 2005 after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional.

Nafeek’s case underscores the precarious status of the nine million foreign workers in the kingdom, many of whom come from poor countries such as Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Working long hours for small wages in order to escape the dire poverty of their homelands, they find themselves in a foreign culture, unable to speak the language, and at the mercy of their employers with few legal protections.

Household help such as maids and drivers, estimated by the International Labour Organization to number more than 780,000 as of 2009, also are sometimes physically abused. Saudi newspapers in recent years have reported a number of cases in which foreign maids have been burned, beaten or killed by Saudis.

Nafeek’s execution “takes place in the context of widespread abuses of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia,” Varia told Al-Monitor. “We hope this very shocking and tragic case can bring attention to the more widespread problems.”

In an effort to create jobs for young Saudis and reduce dependence on foreign labor, the government has encouraged Saudi women to do household work. But Saudis generally reject those positions as demeaning. Also, young Saudi men are not willing to replace the thousands of foreign drivers who must be hired to chauffeur female family members because of a government ban on female drivers.

Nafeek’s case also illustrates the shortcomings of the Saudi legal system, a bastion of religious conservatism in which judges rule according to their personal interpretations of Sharia or Islamic law. Although King Abdullah has sought to reform the kingdom’s judicial system, it has so far proven resistant to modernization.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa “made a personal appeal on two occasions immediately after the confirmation of the death sentence, and a few days ago to stop the execution and grant a pardon to Miss Rizana Nafeek,” the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said in a statement reported by Reuters.

He and the government of Sri Lanka, the statement added, “deplore the execution of Miss Rizana Nafeek despite all efforts at the highest level of the government and the outcry of the people locally and internationally over the death sentence of a juvenile housemaid.”

Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, had also appealed to King Abdullah to pardon Nafeek.

Kateb Fahad Al Shammari, a prominent Riyadh lawyer who was hired by an Asian rights group to handle Nafeek’s appeal, said in a 2010 interview that Nafeek, the daughter of wood-cutter, had had no training in caring for an infant and had been brought to the kingdom to do housework.

“She comes from a really poor family,” Al Shammari added. “How can this maid, who came here to make money, kill someone?”

Al Shammari said that during the appeal he tried to locate the man drafted to interpret during Nafeek’s police interrogation, but could not find him. At one point, a Saudi appeals court announced that the translator had left the kingdom.

In a 2008 interview in Riyadh, then-Sri Lankan Ambassador Abdul A. Mohammed Marleen said that a Sri Lankan recruiting agency, “knowing the pathetic situation” of Nafeek’s poverty-stricken family, “stepped in and said it would send Rizana to Saudi Arabia as a housemaid.” 

The agency forged her passport to say she was 23 so as not to violate international anti-human trafficking laws and Saudi labor regulations, Marleen added. 

Nafeek had been with her employers less than two weeks when the boy died, “so there could not be any motive for her to kill the child out of revenge or anger towards the employer,” the ambassador said in that interview.

In its statement Wednesday announcing the execution, the Saudi Interior Ministry said that Nafeek had killed the child after an argument with the mother. This was the first time that the government had offered a possible motive for the child’s killing. Neither lawyer Al Shammari, nor ambassador Marleen, nor the many articles about the case in the Saudi media ever mentioned an argument. And Human Rights Watch’s Varia, who has been following the case for years, said: “That’s the first time I’ve heard that.” 

Under Saudi law, the child’s father, Naif Jiziyan Khalaf Al-Otaibi, and his wife could have stopped Nafeek’s execution if they forgave her or accepted financial compensation known as “blood money.” But they were unwilling to do this.

As a result, lawyer Al Shammari said, the king could not overturn the death sentence. All he could do was delay its implementation indefinitely by declining to sign the authorization to proceed with the beheading.

Caryle Murphy is a veteran journalist specializing in the Middle East, and author of “Passion for Islam" and "A Kingdom's Future: Saudi Arabia Through the Eyes of Its Twentysomethings." She was a 2011-2012 public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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