When Rizana Nafeek left her war-torn village in Sri Lanka two years ago, aged 17, she hoped to find a new life of peace and prosperity working as a maid in Saudi Arabia.
Instead, she is on death row, facing possible decapitation in the next few months for allegedly strangling the baby son of her Saudi employers.
Executions are commonplace in Saudi Arabia: there have been 109 so far this year, including four Sri Lankans who were beheaded for armed robbery. But Nafeek’s tender age, summary trial and severe sentence have aroused unprecedented international sympathy and sparked a broader debate about the treatment of South Asians in the Middle East.
The case has also put pressure on Sri Lanka’s Government, and others in South Asia, to offer greater protection to the thousands of their citizens who work as maids, drivers and manual labourers in the region. An estimated 1.5 million Sri Lankans work overseas and their annual remittances of £1.25 billion are a mainstay of the Sri Lankan economy.
“This issue should have been taken up long ago,” said Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, which is funding Ms Nafeek’s appeal. “Even now, Sri Lanka’s Government is not taking responsibility. It doesn’t want to set a precedent by providing legal support and there is enormous fear of upsetting relations with Saudi Arabia.”
Nafeek — like many poor Sri Lankans — was sent to work overseas in 2005 through an employment agency that obtained a passport falsely stating that she was born in 1982, rather than 1988. She was assigned to the home of Naif Jiziyan Khalafal Otaibi, a government employee whose wife had just given birth to a boy.
Two weeks into the job, Nafeek’s employers told her to bottle-feed the four-month-old baby while they were out. The baby died in her arms on May 22, 2005.
The Otaibis accused her of strangling their child and a Sharia court sentenced her to death this month — without any legal representation — after she confessed while in custody. Ms Nafeek now says that the confession was made under duress and that the baby choked to death while she was feeding it. She was given a month to appeal, but neither she nor her family could afford a lawyer and the Sri Lankan Government refused to foot the bill. It was only when the BBC World Service radio reported on the case in Sinhala, the main language of Sri Lanka, that the Asian Human Rights Commission intervened.
It raised £20,000 to hire a Saudi lawyer and accused the Sri Lankan Government publicly of failing to protect its citizens. Last week, the Government sent Hussein Bhaila, a deputy foreign minister, to Saudi Arabia along with Nafeek’s parents, who visited her in prison yesterday. “Emotionally and mentally, she’s very down,” Mr Bhaila told The Times.
He said that the policy of not providing expatriate workers with legal support would be reviewed. “I am confident that she will be acquitted on appeal, or failing that, a pardon is possible.” Under Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Sharia, a death sentence for premeditated murder can be quashed through a pardon from the victim’s family on the basis of “diya”, or blood money.
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