Four Sri Lankans Still Detained In Saudi Arabia
By Raisa Wickrematunge
On January 9 (Wednesday) the Ministry of External Affairs confirmed the tragic news – 24-year-old Rizana Nafeek had been executed.
Rizana was just a young girl from Muttur, but her name and her story are known to many. Her passport picture has been printed in newspapers across the country. To many, she has become a symbol- representing the many women who travel to the Middle East hoping to support their families. Her family was not wealthy and it was with hopes of a better future that she falsified her age, (with the collusion of the sub agent who handled her paperwork) planning to go overseas as a domestic worker.
Yet it all went horribly wrong after Rizana was left in charge of her employer’s four-months old, who was later found dead due to suffocation. Rizana confessed, and then retracted her confession, saying that she had been pressured into making it. The truth, she claimed, was that the death was a tragic accident, with the baby choking on milk while being fed.
After that, she was on death row for seven long years, while people, including her family, clamoured for her release. This culminated in the news of her beheading on Tuesday.
While Sri Lankans expressed their sorrow at the news through social media, few realized that Rizana was not the only one. In fact, as MP Ranjan Ramanayaka pointed out, there are at least four other Sri Lankans who, while not on death row, are currently detained in Saudi Arabia.
There’s Tungasiri, a man who worshipped a Buddha statue in the privacy of his room, and was arrested because of it (Saudi Arabia is governed by Islamic sharia law). There’s the man known as Kadawatha Asitha, who had shared an online photo of a cartoon portraying the Prophet Mohammed. Ramanayaka said that there was also a man who was arrested for possessing a Bible (he had received the information from Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment Dilan Perera). One woman was arrested after she wore a black pirith thread to the supermarket, and the policemen there thought she was a witch.
“There are so many cases like this, of people who are languishing in jail. It is a pathetic situation,” Ramanayaka told The Sunday Leader.
It also took years for the state to suspend the license of the sub agent which sent Rizana overseas illegally, Ramanayaka alleged.
Ramanayaka has long campaigned for Rizana Nafeek, and indeed for the rights of migrant workers as a group. In the aftermath of Nafeek’s sudden execution, he laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Government, saying that if the state had taken care of the astronomical legal fees, or even provided lawyers and translators, Rizana might still be alive today. The case was closed off from the public, he pointed out, and Rizana had not had access to lawyers until after the death sentence had already been passed. He alleged that the confession she had made had been beaten out of her by Amlai police.
Ramanayaka added that the confidence of the state had been such that when last week he had spoken about Rizana in Parliament, Minister Perera had said that while the process of freeing her would take time, she would never be beheaded, especially because the President had support from the Middle East.
In fact, it was reported that Perera had been asking about the possibility of a pardon even at 1:15 pm- after the first reports were released about Rizana’s death, although the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, Karunatilaka Amunugama, said that to his knowledge no such requests had been made from Parliament after Rizana had been executed. Perera was not available for comment at the time of the article going to press.
Ramanayaka also charged that since Saudi officials sent funds to help Sri Lankan Muslims celebrate the Hajj festival; Muslim leaders in Parliament had remained silent rather than campaign for Rizana’s release.
However, Minister of Justice, Rauf Hakeem released a statement following the news expressing ‘shock and remorse’ and adding that he had remained in contact with Rizana’s parents in Muttur for a long period of time.
“According to the law of their country there was a fundamental requirement for the accused to be pardoned by the parents of the deceased child. That is why we sought mercy from the deceased child’s parents and the family clan,” Hakeem added, saying that Sri Lanka had respected Saudi Arabia’s decision to uphold their judicial decree.
Now, the MP said he was planning a protest in front of the US embassy. The reason for this, he said, was in the hope that the US would pressurize the Saudi King to release the other four prisoners who are still under arrest. The Saudis would not feel pressure from a small country like Sri Lanka, he added.
Ministry of External Affairs Secretary Amunugama maintained that Sri Lanka had worked hard to try and obtain her release. In the past couple of weeks, the Minister of External Affairs had written to his Saudi counterpart, and the President himself had written to the Saudi King twice, pleading for clemency. There had been several trips to Saudi Arabia, and Rizana’s parents had been able to meet their daughter. In fact, there had recently been a meeting between the Attorney General and the Sri Lankan ambassador for Saudi Arabia, which it was thought, had gone successfully. He added that Rizana had united people of all ethnicities, who were calling for her release. With recent discussions ending favourably, it was even thought that Rizana would be released soon, Amunugama said. Yet all these hopes were dashed with news of the sudden execution. Amunugama said that he did not think the move would have any negative effect on relations between the two countries, but added that Parliamentarians and the public were disappointed and saddened by the decision. On Thursday, in fact, the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Ahamed Javad was recalled, Amunugama confirmed, to show displeasure over the move.
And to add insult to injury, it has been reported that Rizana’s body was buried in Saudi Arabia (Ramanayaka told The Sunday Leader that Rizana’s mother was in floods of tears, while her father had suffered a heart attack and was in hospital after news of the execution reached them).
Meanwhile, several organizations expressed their shock about Rizana’s death. Amnesty International, for instance, released a statement saying that Saudi Arabia was acting against international conventions on the death penalty. Saudi Arabia is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (it ratified the convention in 1996) which expressly prohibits imposing the death penalty on children who are under 18 years of age. As was subsequently proven, Rizana was just 17 at the time of the incident in Riyadh.
“Despite a chorus of pleas for Saudi Arabian authorities to step in and reconsider Rizana Nafeek’s death sentence, they went ahead and executed her anyway, proving once more how woefully out of step they are with their international obligations regarding the use of the death penalty,” said Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. Human Rights Watch also strongly condemned the execution.
“Saudi Arabia is one of just three countries that execute people for crimes they committed as children,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Rizana is yet another victim of the deep flaws in Saudi Arabia’s judicial system.”
“Rizana was just a child herself at the time of the baby’s death, and she had no lawyer to defend her and no competent interpreter to translate her account,” said Varia. “Saudi Arabia should recognize, as the rest of the world long has, that no child offender should ever be put to death.”
For of course, accusations have also been made that not only was Rizana legally a child, she also did not have access to lawyers and translators when she was being questioned. Human Rights Watch contends that in fact Rizana did not have access to a lawyer until after she was sentenced to death in 2007- surely a violation of rights. Disturbing allegations which were never disproved – and now, it is too late.