By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Human rights advocates all over the world expressed dismay and outrage over January 9 reports that Saudi Arabia has beheaded Rizana Nafeek, the Sri Lankan domestic worker who was wrongly accused of killing a baby under her care in 2005. Nafeek’s case has been widely followed by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as by migrant rights organizations, among them the Hong Kong-based Asia-Pacific Migrants Mission (APMM).
In a statement, the APMM said that the announcement of Nafeek’s execution was “terrible news.”
“This is indeed sad news for us, yet a way for us to push with many campaigns for the protection of the rights and welfare of both migrants and youth – Nafeek was only 17 yrs old when she was sent to Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic worker – as well as for effective changes in laws and the judicial system in many receiving countries that are either or both negligent and in violation of migrants’ rights,” the APP said.
According to reports from the DailyMirror.UK, weeks prior to Nafeek’s execution, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia announced that she would be released. Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa himself sent another letter of appeal to the Saudi Arabian government for the deferral of the execution until a settlement was reached.
The HRW also released a statement condemning the execution.
“Saudi Arabia is one of just three countries that executes people for crimes they committed as children,” said Nisha Varia, HRW senior women’s rights researcher “Rizana Nafeek is yet another victim of the deep flaws in Saudi Arabia’s judicial system.”
Execution of those sentenced to death is done by public beheading with a sword. Saudi Arabia executed at least 69 people in 2012.??
According to reports from the APMM, Nafeek was 17 years old when she first began working as a domestic worker in Riyadh, KSA on May 4, 2005. The job recruiter falsified her documents and Nafeek’s passport, which indicated that she was 23 years old, because minors are not allowed to work in Saudi Arabia.
Only weeks later on May 22, 2005, the baby of her employers, Mr. & Mrs. Naif Jizin Khalaf Al-Otaibi of Dawdami, Saudi Arabia, died under Nafeek’s care. Nafeek explained that the baby choked on a bottle by accident, but the parents insisted that she killed the baby and was guilty of murder.
It was reported in the media that Nafeek was bottle-feeding the infant around 12.30 p.m. when the baby began choking. She panicked and shouted for help while attempting to soothe the child by stroking him on the throat, neck and face. It was at this point that the mother arrived, but by then, the baby was either unconscious or dead.
She was sentenced to death by a court in Dawadmi, a town west of Riyadh on June 2007. After which, the Sri Lankan government sought, albeit unsuccessfully, for amnesty for Nafeek, and migrant rights advocacy groups pressed for her release from Dawdami High Security Prisons since she was taken there on May 25, 2005. The Supreme Judicial Council affirmed the death sentence on October 25, 2010.
No legal help, no justice
In an article in the Asian Tribune, a Sri Lankan writer wrote the account of a Dr. Kifaya Ifthikar, a female Sri Lankan dental surgeon working in Riyadh. The surgeon, who visits Nafeek regularly at the Dawdami Prison, said the last time she visited Nafeek was on the first week of April 2012.
The doctor said that at that time, Nafeek was relatively doing well in prison, but for the most part she was unaware of the developments in her case. She did not know, as of April 2012, that her appeal before the Supreme Court was rejected. Neither was she aware that the Supreme Court had upheld her death penalty. She was also unaware then that she would be beheaded any time.
The young woman who originally spoke Tamil became very fluent in Arabic. She told the doctor that she wanted to regain her freedom.
According to separate reports, Nafeek’s family in Sri Lanka is very poor.
In October 2010, the president of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa made a special appeal to the King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud to grant her pardon. The following year, on November 18, 2011, an 18-member delegation appointed by Sri Lankan Minister Dilan Perera went to Riyadh to seek her release.
Four years after her arrest, Nafeek released a statement that was posted by Asiantribune.com in June 2011. The article by K.T.Rajasingham reported that the news agency obtained a signed statement from Nafeek stating her version of what happened and how her case was mishandled by Sri Lankan Embassy officials in Saudi Arabia, and by the lawyer who handled the case.
During the February 3, 2007 court hearing, Nafeek reportedly retracted the initial confession she made and told the court it was obtained by Saudi Arabian police under duress.
“When I was feeding the infant, I noticed that the milk was oozing through the mouth and nose of the infant. I stroke the throat of the infant gently. As the infant’s eyes were closed, I thought that it was sleeping,” she said in her statement.
The Asiantribune.com sought the opinion of an expert regarding what happened.
A Swedish doctor said that there could have been a blockage anywhere between the oral cavity and esophagus. He told Asiantribune.com that when there is a blockage, the milk will not go into the stomach, but will ooze out. It might, the doctor said, be a symptom of something congenital, or of the existence of a tumor.
“It can be also assumed that when the milk the house maid bottle-fed oozed out, the child might have already passed away,” the doctor said.
When Nafeek stroke the infant gently, Asiantribune.com said, it might have left an impression, leading others to the wrong conclusion that Nafeek squeezed the infant child’s throat to death.
Nafeek in her statement also said that when the mother saw the baby, she began hitting Nafeek with slippers and slapped her, causing her nose to bleed. Then the police arrived and arrested her. At the police station, she said the police hit her with a belt and forced her to make a statement that she had strangled the baby.
She was under duress when she affixed her signature on a piece of paper the police forced her to sign. The police then continued to question her, all the while disregarding her explanations that she did not strangle the baby.
It was revealed that the Dawdami police failed to take the dead infant for a postmortem to determine for certain the cause of its death.
Migrant groups concerned for OFWs on death row
Filipino migrant organizations have reasons to be upset over what happened to Nafeek. As of April 2012, and based on the monitoring of Migrante-Middle East, there are eight overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) languishing in various jails in the Middle East. Six of them were sentenced to death and four are facing possible death sentence upon conviction on various criminal offenses.
Migrante said much still needs to be done to save the lives OFWs on death row. It said that no one wants a repeat of the case involving three OFWs, the Gonzalez brothers, Rolando and Edison, and Eduardo Arcilla who were sentenced to death by beheading in Saudi Arabia in 2006 for the murder of fellow Filipinos Romeo Lumbang, Jeremias Bucud and Dante Rivero.
According to reports, the Gonzalez’ brothers and Arcilla said they were “tortured” to admit to the crime. The relatives of the victims already received blood money from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) last 2010. However, according to Saudi laws, payment of blood money does not ensure release or commutation of the sentence of the three OFWs.
Migrante International said that everything really relies on the lobbying efforts of the Philippine government. It said the government should present a letter of forgiveness from the families to the Saudi court to facilitate the processing of OFWs in jail, such as Lanuza’s case.
Based on the reckoning of Migrante International, there are currently 122 Filipinos on death row abroad. The group handles cases of eight of them, including Lanuza. Migrante Middle-East, in the meantime, is closely monitoring other 16 OFWs on death row in the Middle East; eight of them are in Saudi Arabia.