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'She knew she was to be beheaded ... we were helpless'

Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, in the second report of a series on women victims of Islamic 'justice', tells the tragedy of Leonarda Akula
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The Philippines embassy in Riyadh hired a lawyer to defend Leonarda Akula. Much good did it do her. She had killed her Syrian employer along with his wife and 18-year-old son in the Saudi coastal town of Dammam. The son, she said, had tried to rape her, but she confessed to the murder and that was enough for the Islamic court to order her execution.

"We went to see her in the Dammam prison after the verdict and she was often crying or silent," one of the local Philippines embassy staff said. "She seemed very sleepy every time we saw her. She would reply to our questions, but otherwise she would say nothing. She just kept saying that she was very, very sorry." The diplomat paused in his painful story. "Yes, we made an appeal for clemency through the lawyer we hired, a Yemeni. But they went ahead with the execution. She knew she was going to die - they'd told her that. But she didn't know the time or the date. That was a complete surprise to her."

Thus on the morning of 7 May 1993, dressed in an abaya gown and a scarf, Leonarda Akula was led from her cell and driven to the Dammam market place. There she was ordered to kneel before a crowd of Saudis - all of them men - where an executioner with a sword tore off her scarf. He then cut off her head.

"They never reveal the date of the beheading for what they call 'security reasons'," the Philippines diplomat said. The Philippines Labour Secretary, Nieves Confesor - the woman ultimately responsible for all Filipinos working abroad - was by chance in Riyadh on an official visit on the day of Akula's execution. "I felt like going home," she said later.

But of course, she did not. Poor, underdeveloped countries cannot afford to break relations with Saudi Arabia, from where 600,000 Filipino workers - half of them women working as housemaids - send home millions of dollars in remittances. Leonarda Akula's tragedy - and her fate - went unrecorded outside Saudi Arabia. "There was nothing we could do," the Philippines diplomat said. "We were helpless in this matter."

No one, it seemed, asked what had driven a 35-year-old Filipina housemaid to commit so dreadful a crime. Before her execution, she had told Philippines diplomats that her employer - a Syrian who was regarded locally as a religious leader - had kept her imprisoned in his house, that she was never allowed out, that she was not given enough to eat. These are common enough complaints from tens of thousands of foreign housemaids in Gulf countries. And Akula said that the 18-year-old son tried to rape her. She never denied that she had taken a knife to all three of them at night, killing first the alleged would-be rapist and then his parents.

Saudi authorities claim that she never left the house after the murders; she was apparently too mentally confused to understand what she had done and spent much of her time pouring salt over the corpses in a vain attempt to prevent their decomposition in the fierce Saudi heat. When Saudi neighbours smelled the bodies, they called the police; Saudi security men found Akula sitting near the corpses, drinking coffee.

"Later, we were told she had killed two other people," a Philippines source said. "But I ask you - how could this lone woman kill three people on her own, let alone five? This is not possible. Was she taking the blame for others? Were there accomplices? We shall never know." Philippines government officials admit that Saudi courts do not always condemn to death Filipinos accused of murder. In 1983, they stated that courts had approved 185 out of 280 requests for clemency, though few of these involved the death penalty. In one case, Ms Confesor was later quoted as saying, a sharia court found the accused acted in self-defence. Another found grounds for judging a Filipino defendant insane.

Since Akula's beheading, another eight women have been executed in the Gulf - one of them by firing squad, the rest decapitated - for crimes ranging from murder to drug smuggling. Hundreds have been lashed by male prison officers for alleged sexual misdemeanours and theft. If courts have sometimes shown mercy, they have often demonstrated their ruthlessness.

None of this helped Leonarda Akula, whose own behaviour must surely have required some questions about her mental stability. Although she was brought up a Christian in the Philippines capital of Manila, the Saudis took her body for secret interment to a Muslim cemetery in Dammam where she was buried - according to Wahhabi custom - in a grave without a marker. The Philippines embassy subsequently wrote to the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, officially requesting the repatriation of her remains to her family. The Saudis did not even bother to reply.