In 2005, a seventeen-year-old girl traveled to an unfamiliar country thousands of miles away from her tiny village, hoping to earn enough as a maid to pay for an education for her three younger siblings. Five years later she’s in jail, waiting to be executed for a crime she may not have committed.
Last week, I wrote about three women working as maids in Saudi Arabia who were allegedly tortured by their employers. I was planning to include a short description of this case, but decided that while it’s related it reflects a different aspect of injustice toward foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
Near the end of my post, I cited a 2004 Human Rights Watch report stating that there was “pervasive abuse” of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and “appalling flaws in the kingdom’s criminal justice system as a whole.” They reported that, among other injustices, “foreigners detained in Saudi Arabia have been denied consular visits and forced to sign confessions they could not read.”
This is one of those unjust cases. In 2005 Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan girl, came to Saudi Arabia to work as a housemaid. Her parents told BBC News she believed she would be cleaning, not caring for a baby, and that she had no childcare experience. After just one month, a four-month-old infant died in her arms — his parents accused her of strangling him, and she said he choked while she bottle-fed him and that she frantically tried to revive him but could not. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. At the end of October, her conviction and sentence were affirmed by the Saudi Supreme Court. According to Amnesty International, her death sentence must be ratified by the king of Saudi Arabia, and then she can be executed at any time.
Capital Punishment for Crime Committed As A Child
Beyond the usual objections to the death penalty, this case seems particularly unjust. Nafeek seems to have been a minor at the time the baby died — though her passport says she was 23 in 2005, according to her family and neighbors, a school register examined by the BBC, and her birth certificate, she was actually 17 in 2005. Her family says her passport was falsified by a job agent so she could travel overseas to work.
According to Amnesty International, the court did not allow any evidence concerning her age to be presented at her trial, relying solely on her (apparently) forged passport.
Saudi Arabia is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits execution for crimes committed by minors. However, the country does not keep to this standard. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2009 Saudi Arabia executed “at least three individuals for crimes they allegedly committed as children,” in addition to at least 50 more people.
Injustice in Court
There are additional injustices to Nafeek’s sentence in addition to her status as a minor. Her conviction was apparently based almost entirely on a confession that Nafeek made and then retracted, saying it was made under duress after being beaten and threatened. According to Amnesty International she had no access to lawyers before or during her first trial. (Later, the Asian Human Rights Commission retained legal representation for her.) The statements she did make may have been mistranslated — it turns out that the assigned translator may not have been able to accurately translate Tamil into Arabic. Nafeek, who speaks no Arabic, was not able to understand any of the court proceedings.
Nafeek’s parents have repeatedly begged the king of Saudi Arabia to pardon the girl, and the president of Sri Lanka has appealed for clemency. Her parents also appealed to the parents of the baby who died, as they too have the right to pardon her. So far, they have not responded and have refused to meet with Nafeek’s parents. Human rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Asian Human Rights Commission are campaigning for her life to be spared.
Take Action — Urgent
Amnesty International is urging everyone to write to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia before December 8th, asking him to pardon Nafeek and reminding him that Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They also encourage letter-writers to send copies to their ambassadors. Amnesty International has more information on their website.
The Islamic Human Rights Commission also asks everyone to write to the king, Saudi ambassadors, and the foreign ministers/secretaries of their own countries, and offers sample letters on their website.
A Safe World for Women gives addresses for the Saudi king, Saudi Minister of the Interior, the president of the Human Rights Commission, and the Saudi Arabian embassies in the United States and United Kingdom.
For U.S. residents, you can also contact the State Department on their website here, asking them to call for King Abdullah to halt the execution.
My heart goes out to the parents of the baby who died. The death of a child is an almost unimaginably devastating loss. I hope they can find some measure of healing, though I understand that their pain will never completely fade.
At the same time, my heart is with the Nafeek family. The execution of Rizana Nafeek, a girl convicted under highly dubious conditions for a crime she committed as a child, is unjust and will only bring more agony. Without minimizing the loss of the baby’s parents, we must do everything in our power to win a pardon from King Abdullah and prevent this death sentence from being carried out.
This photo of a sword (not actually an Arabian sword, I should note), was taken from Albion Europe ApS's flickr, and reused with thanks under Creative Commons License.