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No mercy for young maid who begged to go home

Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, in his third report on Islamic executions of women, describes the tragic fate of Sithy Farook in the UAE
Said Saleh Mansour turned up every day to attend the trial in the United Arab Emirates of the 19-year-old accused of killing his four- year-old daughter.

Again and again, he urged the court to expedite her execution. Asked to pardon the Sri Lankan maid, the father - a senior officer in the Ras al-Khaimar police department - replied uncompromisingly. "Sir," he wrote, "how can I pardon a person who has brutally killed my innocent daughter who was only four years of age?" The letter sealed the fate of Sithy Farook. In April, she was led from her prison cell to stand in a white abaya gown, crying uncontrollably, before a seven-man firing squad.

Her father, Mohamed Nilan, a labourer attached to the city council in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka, heard that the second of his five daughters had been executed after an Islamic trial only when neighbours received a telephone call from one of her friends.

"Our daughter was so unhappy with her employers that she wrote home many times saying she wanted to return to Sri Lanka," he told one of the local Colombo newspapers 12 days after his daughter's execution. "But we asked her to stay and complete her contract - now look at the fate that befell her."

Appeals by the Sri Lankan government, its embassy in Abu Dhabi - the capital of the United Arab Emirates - and even from the president of the Ras al-Khaimar court, refused to soften Said Mansour's anger.Sithy Farook had stabbed his daughter to death on 17 October, 1994, and she must pay the price. In his eyes, and in those of the court, there were no extenuating circumstances; no one mentioned Sithy's pleading letters to her father, even if they knew about them. No one suggested - as Sithy told friends in the prison - that she had confessed to the crime only because Said Mansour had promised she would be sent home to Sri Lanka if she did.

Sithy Farook's story is tragically mundane, a pathetic tale of a former Colombo garment worker who was sent out to the emirates as a maid to earn enough money to buy her parents a new home in Sri Lanka, only to find herself overwhelmed by the work she was given and the six children she was expected to look after. Her employer had invited relatives to live in his home, she wrote, ordering Sithy to look after all of them - a total of 17 children, some of them babies, and one of them a handicapped girl.

After her execution, Sri Lanka's newspapers - though very definitely not the emirates' press - asked what had driven Sithy Farook to kill the four-year-old girl. In court, she readily admitted to the murder, as she did to Sri Lankan embassy officials. A report by the Sri Lankan foreign ministry later recorded that Sithy "without any hesitation or fear... admitted she committed the offence... she remembers the child biting her arm and she, having lost her temper, stabbing her with a pen-knife-cum-nail-cutter which was in her hand at that moment."

According to Ras al-Khaimar court records, Sithy stabbed the little girl with a "sharp steel key" after failing to resuscitate her when she had a fit. The records state that the maid then wrapped the child's body in a piece of cloth, placed it in a box and buried it beneath a neighbouring house.

In the weeks immediately before the killing, Sithy had addressed several more letters to her parents, pleading to be allowed to go home, adding that her employer was not posting all her letters and was not passing on letters from her family. Her father gave his permission for her to come home but, so he said later, Sithy decided to carry on working for another two years.

When he heard of his daughter's death sentence, he met Sri Lanka's government leaders and personally appealed for his daughter's life to the President of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. The Sri Lankan charge d'affaires in Abu Dhabi discussed Sithy's case with the emirates' ministry of foreign affairs. Repeated offers were made to the dead child's family of "blood money" which would allow Sithy to be spared. But, according to the Sri Lankan authorities, the little girl's father, Said Mansour, still insisted upon Sithy's execution and would not accept any offer of money. Given the rules of Islamic law in such circumstances, the emirates' authorities concluded, the maid would have to be put to death.

Her father originally asked for the return of Sithy's remains to Sri Lanka. But he could not afford the cost of shipping her body home and reluctantly accepted that she should be buried in an unknown grave in Ras al-Khaimar. Sithy was a Muslim, and this would mean that she would be buried closer to the holy city of Mecca.

When the Independent questioned the Sri Lankan ambassador to Abu Dhabi about Sithy's death last week, he said he had no details since he had only taken up his post a month earlier. The labour officer at the embassy would say only that Sithy was 20 years old when she was executed; she was in fact 19. When I asked if I could meet the Sri Lankan official who handled Sithy's file, I was told that he was "quite ill at the moment". More than a month after Sithy's death, the Sri Lanka civil rights movement expressed its "shock and distress" that the most strenuous efforts to save her life had not been taken. Her execution was recorded in the local emirates' press in a single paragraph on an inside page.