I want to tell you, and from your mouth to God's ear, the tragic tale of Rizana Nafeek, an inconsequential and faceless housemaid from Sri Lanka who is presently incarcerated and awaiting public execution by beheading in Saudi Arabia.
The tale begins in 2005 when Rizana, hardly 17 years old at the time, left her poor homeland of Sri Lanka to work as a servant in the oil-drenched monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Rizana, a very brave and courageous individual, the eldest of her siblings, undertook this ill-fated journey to support her penurious family back home. The family lived in a dilapidated shack, her father scavenged and sold wood from an adjoining forest for sustenance, and the destitute parents could not afford healthcare, proper nutrition, or to send their children to school. Rizana, fired by the dreams and the innocence of youth, hoped to make a difference with the relatively handsome wages she expected to make as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. She would build a new house in the village for her family, provide for her parents, send her siblings to school….
Rizana arrived in Riyadh on May 4, 2005 and was immediately sent to work in the household of her sponsoring employer in the town of Dawadmi in central Saudi Arabia. In addition to her numerous housekeeping chores she was given the task of caring for her employer's infant child who was hardly 4 months old at the time. She was bottle-feeding the infant on May 22, 2005 when, according to Rizana, the baby "choked" during the feeding. Desperately, the terrified housemaid shook the infant in a futile attempt to get the baby to breathe again, but to no avail. The baby died.
Rizana and the baby were in a room by themselves when the incident occurred. As she continued shaking the now presumably dead baby and screaming for help, the infant's absent mother, who did not witness any of the antecedents, walked into the room and immediately accused Rizana of murdering the child. Rizana was arrested on the spot and taken to prison.
Shortly thereafter the Saudi authorities procured a signed "confession" from the miserable teenager admitting she had murdered the infant. Rizana subsequently stated that she was threatened and beaten by the local police into signing that statement. No autopsy of the deceased infant was ever performed by the investigators to ascertain the cause of death.
The case went to trial in the Dawadmi High Court. Without the benefit of due process or the presumption of innocence, and based solely on the "confession" extracted from her and which she had subsequently recanted, Rizana Nafeek was sentenced to death on June 16, 2007. Death will be by public beheading.
Poor Rizana has been languishing in a Saudi prison - now awaiting her executioner - ever since the teenager was arrested for the alleged offense seven years ago, in 2005. As most objective people would agree, Rizana is unlikely to have murdered her employer's child. This brave young girl had ventured far from home seeking a job to help her family. She had worked just two weeks for her employer before the infant died, hardly any time to develop antipathy for the family or a motive to kill the baby. Why would she do it after all that sacrifice?
Rizana was provided no legal representation during the trial by the Sri Lankan government or by any other source. After the sentencing, and just before the deadline for an appeal was to expire and immediate execution loomed, the Asian Human Rights Commission graciously funded an appeal which, however, was unsuccessful. The Saudi authorities claim there is nothing they can do for her. The Sri Lankan government has done little for its star-crossed young citizen except to send ineffective gaggles of local politicians to pow-wow with the Saudis. Only a pardon by the parents of the deceased infant can spare Rizana's precious life. And they have turned her down.
If nothing else, shed a tear for Rizana Nafeek.
30 September, 2012
Asian Human Rights Commission