A year ago today, a blindfolded, white-clad Rizana Nafeek had her head chopped off in public in Dawadmy, near the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan, was among the numerous foreign laborers routinely imported to Saudi Arabia for domestic work. There are an estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia from South Asia (especially Sri Lanka), Nepal, Indonesia, East Africa, and the Philippines. Most are employed via the kafala (“sponsorship”) system that places their host in an almost lord-like position of authority.
Such workers are excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labor protections, and as a result stand vulnerable to horrifying abuse.* Household heads often confiscate these workers’ passports, and in some cases have subjected their domestic employees to rape, beatings, wage confiscation, and work weeks of 100-plus hours. One Sri Lankan woman had nails driven into her hands when she complained about overwork.
Rizana Nafeek hardly had time to find out whether any of these perquisites were in store for her. Not long after she arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 hoping to make enough money as a domestic drudge to move her impoverished family into a house, she had bottle-feeding duties for her host family’s infant foisted upon her. Nafeek had no training in caring for infants.
In May 2005, that child began choking while in Rizana’s care, and her panicked shouts summoned the mother. By the time the mother arrived, the infant had fallen unconscious, and the upset family immediately handed over their maid to the police, accusing her of strangling the baby.
This was the victim for whom Nafeek was decapitated, and also perhaps an illustration of tunnel vision in law enforcement. It’s quite doubtful whether there was ever any objective basis for supposing a homicide, but the fact that this was the color the family gave to events in the horror of the moment set in motion all the ensuing events.
During the investigation leading up to her 2007 trial and condemnation, Nafeek confessed to smothering the child — but she would later claim this confession was tortured out of her, and that the baby simply started choking on its bottle. (There was never a post-mortem on the dead baby.)
Opaque as the Saudi Arabian criminal justice system is, it’s got ample reputation for obtaining confessions by violence, and for mistreating migrant workers. And the accused had scant legal representation and no translator when she was tried for her life in a Saudi court.
After her conviction, it would also emerge that, order to land her the gig, Nafeek’s Sri Lankan recruiting agency falsified her papers to bump her age up past the legal minimum of 21. Rizana Nafeek arrived in Saudi Arabia carrying a passport that said she was born in 1982, making her 23 years old when she committed the supposed murder … but her birth certificate said that she was born in 1988, and was still a minor when the “murder” took place.
Noting that the dead infant’s family refused repeated blandishments of “blood money” to exercise its right to grant clemency, Riyadh officially “deplore[d] the statements made” by Rizana’s supporters “over the execution of a Sri Lankan maid who had plotted and killed an infant by suffocating him to death, one week after she arrived in the kingdom.”
More sympathetic Saudis, undoubtedly meaning well, offered Rizana Nafeek’s family cash compensation after the young woman was beheaded. That money, too, was angrily refused.
“I will not accept any gifts from the Saudis or the Saudi government which murdered my daughter,” mother Saiyadu Farina told a Sri Lankan newspaper. That anger was widely shared in Sri Lanka; Colombo even recalled its Saudi ambassador in protest.
That’s as may be, but money is sure to carry the argument at the end of the day. Wage remittances by overseas laborers are a massive boon to the island nation, amounting to $6.3 billion in 2012 — 8.8% of the Sri Lankan economy. And Saudi Arabia remains the single largest employer (pdf) of Sri Lankans abroad.
As of the time of Rizana Nafeek’s execution, at least 45 other foreign domestics, most of them Indonesians, were also awaiting execution on Saudi Arabia’s death row.