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Middle East

Saudi Arabia executes Sri Lankan maid

Kingdom breaching global treaty as Rizana Nafeek was 17 when baby died in her care

Saudi Arabia drew widespread censure today as it ignored personal pleas from the Sri Lankan President and executed a migrant worker for the death of a baby in her care, despite her being a minor at the time of the crime.

The news of the beheading – which was followed by a minute’s silence in the Sri Lankan parliament – came as Colombo was preparing to send an emergency delegation to Saudi Arabia in a last-ditch attempt for a resolution. The Sri Lankan President President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had written to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to appeal for clemency, said he “deplored” the decision.

The daughter of a woodcutter from a small village in eastern Sri Lanka, Rizana Nafeek was 17 when the four-month-old baby in her care died, meaning the execution is in breach of an international treaty to protect children to which Saudi Arabia is a signatory. Amnesty International said the execution showed that the religiously conservative kingdom, which executed 79 people last year, is “woefully out of step with international standards on the death penalty”.

The case once again throws a spotlight on the vulnerability of migrant workers in the country and their treatment under its legal system – where human rights groups say access to adequate translation and legal assistance is severely limited. Rights groups raised concerns about the fairness of the trail as Ms Nafeek was denied access to legal representation and adequate translation.

Indonesia last year banned its nationals from working in Saudi Arabia, when a maid was beheaded after confessing to killing her employer, claiming he abused her.

Tales of mistreatment are all too common. Two years ago, a 49-year-old maid returned from Saudi Arabia her body studded with iron nails which had been driven into her flesh by her employer – she said she was afraid he would slit her throat if she screamed as they were hammered in. Surgeons removed 23 nails and needles from her body when she returned home, though Saudi authorities reject her story.

Like many of the Gulf’s migrant workers Ms Nafeek’s parents say they were forced to send her overseas to supplement the struggling family’s income. They say the employment agency forged her documents to make it appear she was an adult and could legally seek employment in the oil-rich Gulf state. Her passport says she was born in February 1982, but rights groups claim she was not allowed to present her birth certificate or other evidence of her age to the court during her trial in 2007.

Ms Nafeek had been in the country for a matter of weeks when the baby in her care in the town of Dawadmi died in 2005. The Saudi Interior Ministry say that she smothered the child after an argument with her employer and that the sentence was carried out “legitimately and honestly”. The maid initially admitted to the crime but later retracted her confession saying it had been extracted under duress, saying the baby had choked on milk. 

“One issue that we have continuously highlighted is the treatment of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, not only at the hands of their employers who mistreat them, refuse salaries and refuse time off, but also at the hands of the authorities,” said Dina El-Mamoun, Saudi Arabia researcher at Amnesty International. “When migrant workers come into contact with the law they are often dealt with harshly and not given their rights, despite being the most vulnerable section of society.”

The execution coincided with an International Labour Organisation report which urged nations to urgently adopt and implement new laws to protect domestic workers, with just 10 per cent given the same legal protection as other workers. “The lack of rights, the extreme dependency on an employer and the isolated and unprotected nature of domestic work can render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” the report said.