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by Feizal Samath

Saudi Executions Drop as Victim Families Forgive or Strike Deals

(IPS) -- The dramatic reprieve for a condemned Sri Lankan housemaid won by lawyers, beating a July 16 deadline for filing an appeal in the Saudi Arabian courts, has focused the international spotlight on a closed justice system which condemns people to death without legal representation at their trials.

Rizana Nafeek, a 19-year-old migrant worker, was sentenced to death on Jun. 16 for allegedly intentionally killing a four-month-old infant who choked to death while she was giving it a midday bottle feed in May 2005. Nafeek had only one month to file an appeal or she would have been executed by sword and her body put on public display to deter future offenders.

Her beheading would have been one of more than 100 carried out so far this year in a country currently seeing a surge in state killings, according to Amnesty International (AI). Many of those executed are foreigners. Saudi Arabia has a population of 27 million, including 5.5 million foreign nationals. Last year it executed 39 people, 26 of them foreigners, according to AI.

Nafeek's last-minute reprieve was secured by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) which launched an international appeal campaign "under extraordinary circumstances." The Commission, with the approval of the Sri Lankan embassy in Riyadh, stepped in to pay the legal costs to a Saudi law firm to challenge the death sentence in court.

"We have filed the appeal by the due date," Sri Lankan deputy minister of foreign affairs Hussain Bhaila told IPS in Colombo, before flying out to Riyadh at the end of last week on a mercy mission. With him on the flight were Nafeek's parents and a local Muslim leader.

This assembled mission was a separate approach to save the maid who now had a stay on execution. They hoped to meet with the dead infant's parents and through various intermediaries secure a pardon. They also hoped to visit the maid in jail.

"It is not going to be easy meeting them (the parents)," Bhaila said, adding that they had already refused to see the Sri Lankan ambassador. Under Saudi law only the parents can grant a pardon, something they had declined to do when the death sentence was passed.

The drama over the international efforts to save Nafeek's life illustrates the near-impossibility of other condemned migrant workers to engage Saudi lawyers -- even if they are aware they have this right. Nafeek comes from a poor Sri Lankan family and had been working in Saudi Arabia at her employer's home just two weeks when the tragic incident occurred.

The legal costs of filing her appeal were first put at Saudi Riyal 250,000 (about 66,000 U.S. dollars). The Sri Lankan embassy eventually negotiated a 28,000 dollar reduction.

Although the appeal can now go ahead, lawyers are still waiting for Saudi officials to send them essential documents, including a copy of the final judgement. Even a week before the appeal deadline, the Sri Lankan embassy issued an "urgent request" for this and other key documents needed by lawyers.

With the appeal being filed, Nafeek for the first time since her arrest has legal representation. At her trial she had no independent legal advice, according to the AHRC. This was also the case in the trials of four Sri Lankan migrants who were executed for armed robbery in February this year, according to AI.

The cases are similar in many respects and may be representative of others involving capital trials of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia.

Nafeek was put under duress to sign an incriminating statement that was used to condemn her for strangling the child to death. "At the police station she was very harshly handled and did not have the help of a translator or anyone else to whom she could explain what had happened. She was made to sign a confession and later charges of murder by strangulation were filed in court," according to the AHRC.

In the case of the four Sri Lankan men who were beheaded, they told judges at the trial that they had been beaten by the police during interrogation. One of the four, Ranjith de Silva, in a telephone interview with Human Rights Watch a week before his execution, said he understood that but for his incriminating confession he might not face the death penalty.

De Silva had also said that the judge at his trial did not inform him that he could appeal or provide any of the four a copy of the judgement, according to Human Rights Watch. One of the four is believed to have thought he had been sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment, according to AI.

The conduct of the Saudi judges is under scrutiny in the Nafeek case. According to the AHRC she is said to have informed the judge that she was 17 at the time she arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 -- not 23. Her date of birth on her passport had been falsified by the employment agency. This would have meant that she was just 17 at the time of the infant's death and an underage girl.

But the judge failed to call for a medical examination to verify this, according to rights organizations. The Sri Lankan embassy in a statement on Jul. 8 has confirmed that there is a certified copy of Nafeek's birth certificate confirming that she was born on Feb. 4, 1988.

Saudi Arabia sets the minimum age for employment at 22 years, according to Suraj Dandeniya, President of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies in Colombo.

The practice of falsifying documents is widespread. According to some estimates, between 10 and 25 percent of Sri Lankan Muslim women who go abroad to work are underage and succeed with bogus documents and passports. There are currently some 300,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, a third of whom are Muslim women.

"All officials involved in this illegal process are culpable not only the recruiting agent," said Dandeniya.

David Soysa, director of the Migrant Workers' Center, a long-standing Colombo-based institution which supports migrant workers, believes Nafeek's case illustrates just how unprepared and untrained many migrant workers are for their duties in Middle East households. The Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau, the main foreign employment promoting arm of the government, provides only 12 days of training.

"There is a serious problem about lack of proper training of migrant workers. The maid didn't know how to burp a child when choking occurs during feeding, which is common. A trained maid would have handled this easily," he said.

He also believed that this was a case of child trafficking. "The offenders should be punished," he said.

Saudi Arabia is a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This bans any member nation from executing anyone for a crime committed while under the age of 18 years.

It is not known when Nafeek's case will come before the appeal courts.

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Albion Monitor   July 23, 2007   (

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