Saudi Arabia's Attack on Foreign Domestic Workers

January 23, 2013

Birth certificate of Sri Lankan Rizana Nafeek.
The passport of  Sri Lankan Rizana Nafeek. She was a foreign domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.  And at the age of 17, she was arrested on charges of murdering an infant in her care. 

Saudi Arabia has a long, infamous history of denying legal rights to foreign domestic workers, but it’s still outrageous that two recent cases indicate that these workers– whom are predominantly women —  can’t even count on basic internationally accepted protections for juveniles and the mentally ill. This month, one Sri Lanka woman paid for this failure with her life. And another’s life is at risk.

The beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan foreign domestic worker, on Jan. 12 underscored the lack of legal protections for foreign workers in Saudi Arabia.  The execution came despite an international campaign protesting her death sentence as violating international legal standards preventing the execution of juveniles.

Only 17 years old at the time of the crime, Nafeek was arrested in May 2005 on charges of murdering an infant in her care. A court in Dawadmi, a town west of the capital Riyadh, sentenced her to death in 2007.

As a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Saudi Arabia is prohibited from imposing the death penalty on persons who were under 18 years old at the time of the offense for which they were convicted.

Nafeek had no access to lawyers either during her pre-trial interrogation or at her first trial, and retracted her “confession” that she said was taken while she was under physical duress.

Her case is not an isolated one.  According to a recent article in the Guardian, more than 45 foreign maids are facing execution on death row in Saudi Arabia. Many of these cases involve questionable legal procedures.

Amnesty International is highlighting the case of Siti Zainab Binti Duhri Rupa, who has been detained in Medina Prison in Saudi Arabia since 1999. A migrant domestic worker, she allegedly confessed to the murder of her employer during a police interrogation and has been sentenced to death.

Siti Rupa, reportedly suffers from mental illness, but none of this was a factor in her trial.  She was denied legal assistance and representation throughout her pre-trial detention and is not known to have had a lawyer to represent her at her trial or to have received adequate interpretation from Arabic.

Amnesty International has been campaigning for the commutation of her death sentence. It is in breach of the UN Commission on Human Rights resolution “not to impose the death penalty on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder or to execute any such person.” There is also concern about the reliability of her alleged confession.

In November 2001 the Saudi Arabian government announced that Siti Rupa’s sentence could be overturned by her employer’s child; under Shari’a law, the heirs of murder victims have the right to pardon the offender either freely or in exchange for compensation. Siti Rupa is now forced to wait until the child reaches majority and decides her fate. The age of the child is unknown.

Help Siti Rupa. Tell the Saudi authorities: NO  unfair trial proceedings of foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

Lara Zuzan Golesorkhi, Amnesty International USA country specialist for Saudi Arabia, contributed to this post.