On Wednesday, the Saudi Arabian government beheaded Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan woman who had worked as a maid in the kingdom, holding her responsible for the death of the four-month-old baby of her employer.

Nafeek—the daughter of an impoverished wood-cutter from a village in Trincomalee, in northern Sri Lanka—was a seventeen-year-old in the second week of her job as a maid in the Saudi town of Dawadmi when the child died in her care on May 22, 2005. She said that she had been bottle-feeding him when he choked. Her employer, Naif Al-Otaibi, accused her of strangling the child after an argument with his wife and took her to a local police station, where she was arrested.

Nafeek was tried in the Dawadmi High Court without legal representation. The main evidence against Nafeek was a “confession” she had signed in the police station. On June 16, 2007, the Dawadmi High Court sentenced her to death. After the news of her conviction spread, Fernando Basil, a Sri Lankan expatriate who runs the Hong Kong-based human-rights group Asian Human Rights Commission, hired a Saudi lawyer named Kateb Al Shammari and appealed Nafeek’s conviction.

To lift up her family from desperate poverty, Nafeek had dropped out of high school in Mutter village near Trincomalee in Sri Lanka and moved to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid. Men from domestic-worker recruiting agencies based in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, tour the countryside selling Saudi and Gulf dreams of prosperity to impoverished families.

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Nafeek’s family was convinced, but they faced a technical problem: she was a minor, seventeen years old, born on February 4, 1988. For a fee, the agent made her passport with a falsified date of birth, which listed her as a twenty three year old, born on February 2, 1982. And with that Nafeek became one of the twenty-five million migrant domestic workers in the Middle East, mostly from Asia and Africa

In 2008, more than three years after Nafeek was arrested, the lawyer Kateb Al Shammari was able to defend her case in the same Dawadmi High Court that had sentenced her to death. In the course of the off-and-on hearings over the next months, a complicated picture began to emerge.

On the date of the infant’s death, Al-Shammari argued, Nafeek was a minor; he produced her birth certificate to back up his claim. Saudi Arabia, a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is obliged not to execute a person convicted of a crime when he or she was a minor. (The United States is a signatory, as well, but remains one of the three countries, apart from Somalia and South Sudan, who have not ratified it.)

Al Shammari also argued that Nafeek had not been hired as a nanny, but a general maid, and had no prior training in child care. She was a left alone to feed the child, and didn’t know how to save him when he choked. In an affidavit, Nafeek says that while she was feeding the baby, she saw milk oozing out of his mouth and nose.

Nafeek, who appeared in the court during the hearings, told the judges that her confession at the Dawadmi police station had been made under duress and as a result of a physical assault. Shariah Law, which applies in Saudi Arabia, does not accept statements made under duress.

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Her lawyer raised questions about the linguistic capability of Mustaffa Saibo, an immigrant worker, who had translated the confession, and sought to cross-examine him. But the judge dismissed that request: according to Saibo’s employer, he had left Saudi Arabia.

If the Saudi authorities conducted an autopsy or any other forensic inquiry to establish the cause of death of the infant, they have kept strangely quiet about it. The Dawadmi High Court had been instructed to hear the case and pass its observations to the Supreme Court. Finally, in October of 2010, the Saudi Supreme Court in Riyadh endorsed the death sentence for Nafeek, holding her guilty of murder.

For the next two years, Nafeek remained on death row. Saudi Law grants the family members of a victim the right to pardon the life of the person who faces death for killing their relative in exchange for blood money. The Al-Otaibis turned down the clemency pleas. So did the Saudi King, despite appeals from the Sri Lankan government.

Nafeek remained in prison in Dawadmi. A Sri Lankan woman, Kifaya Iftikhar, who works as a dentist in Riyadh, would visit her every month or two. The two women developed a routine. As Iftikhar was about to reach Nafeek’s prison, she would call her mother in Sri Lanka and tell her to be ready to speak to the daughter.

Inside the prison cell, Iftikhar would call again and let Nafeek speak to her mother. Even after the Supreme Court had confirmed her death sentence, Nafeek was still hopeful. “She didn’t realize that her chances of getting out were very bleak. Even in my last meeting with her a month earlier, she talked about when she would be released,” Iftikhar says. Iftikhar and Nafeek’s family decided against speaking to her about her execution, although there were rumors, for the past month, that the date would be soon.

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On Wednesday morning, Iftikhar travelled again from Riyadh to Dawadmi prison to visit Nafeek. As she approached the prison, she called Nafeek’s mother to prepare her for a conversation with her daughter. At the prison gate, the guards stopped Iftikhar. “You can’t meet her today. Please come back tomorrow or some other time,” a guard said.

She began her journey back to Riyadh. At a stop in the journey, Iftikhar read about Nafeek’s execution. She couldn’t bring herself to tell Nafeek’s mother about her execution and called one of her neighbours and said, “We have lost her.”

It is a process that is replicated in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, among other places. .

Although their remittances lift their societies from stark poverty, a foreign maid steps into a world of abuse, overwork, and suspicion. Migrant workers enter Saudi Arabia and most other oil-rich Middle Eastern countries through a system known as kafala, or sponsorship. Kafala has happier roots; it is the Bedouin tradition of granting a stranger temporary refuge and feeding him as long as he wishes.

In the modern Arab world, kafala has become an oppressive, non-transferable visa regime, which ensures that a foreign worker can only work for the kafeel, the employer who sponsored his/her visa. On a worker’s arrival, the kafeel generally confiscates his or her passport, and the worker is left with little protection.

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Days after her ordeal, Saudi employers murdered another Indonesian maid, the thirty-six-year-old Kikim Komalasari, whose body had been dumped in a garbage bin. Muhaimin Iskandar, the Indonesian Minister of Labour, said that Komalasari’s neck had been slashed and she had severe cuts to the rest of her body.

In yet another incident in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, a forty-nine-year-old Sri Lankan maid named Lahadapurage Daneris Ariyawathie had nails and metal objects hammered into her by her employers in March, 2010, after she complained of being overworked.

Such abuse is not an aberration, but is widespread throughout Saudi Arabia as well as other Middle Eastern countries. A 2010 Human Rights Watch report, “As If I Am Not Human,” based on extensive interviews with domestic workers in Saudi Arabia as well as in their home countries, described conditions amounting to modern-day slavery.

Sexual abuse of domestic workers by employers in Saudi Arabia seems not uncommon, according to the Human Rights Watch report. “Examples of abuse included beatings, deliberate burnings with hot irons, threats, insults, and forms of humiliation such as shaving a domestic worker’s head.Interviewed women who reported rape, attempted rape, and sexual harassment, typically cite male employers or their sons, as perpetrators.

An Indonesian woman named Darsem Binti Dawud was sentenced to death in 2009 after killing her employer, who she said was trying to rape her; she eventually returned home in July, 2011, after, according to Saudi tradition, the slain employer’s family agreed to waive her death sentence in exchange for blood money—an amount of U.S. $549,900, which was paid by the Indonesian government.

Although several Middle Eastern countries are slowly reforming their labor laws, Saudi Arabia seems to be the hardest place for workers. “Bahrain recently changed its labor law to provide domestic workers with annual leave and access to labor-dispute mechanisms,” Nisha Varia, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch says.

“The United Arab Emirates is close to adopting a new law on domestic workers’ rights. Kuwait and Bahrain have active policy discussions on reforming the exploitative kafala system. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has made almost no progress on either improving basic labor protections for domestic workers or abolishing the kafala system.”


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