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Indonesia and Saudi at odds over abuse of maids

The death of a domestic helper whose body was found in a street as well as claims by another maid who says her Saudi employers hammered nails into her body threaten to strain relations between world's largest Muslim countries.

RIYADH // The death of an Indonesian domestic worker, whose body was dumped in a street, and the recent maiming of another maid are threatening to strain relations between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population.

In both incidents, the women's employers are suspected of alleged abuse, underscoring the precarious position of the kingdom's household workers, who do not enjoy the protections of Saudi labour laws.

The body of the 36-year-old Indonesian maid Kikim Komalasari was found on November 11 in a street in the southern Saudi town of Abha, a source said. According to news reports yesterday from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, she had sustained stab wounds to her neck and other parts of her body.

On its website, CNN quoted Michael Tene, the Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman, saying that Komalasari "has died due to the ill-treatment ... by her employers in the town of Abha".

However, the Indonesian presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told CNN that officials had not definitively determined how the maid died.

"It's shocking to hear this ... it's beyond inhumane," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters yesterday, according to the Associated Press. The Indonesian embassy in Riyadh sent emissaries to Abha to look into the circumstances of Komalasari's death, the news report added.

Her apparent murder comes shortly after another Indonesian maid, Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, 23, was brought unconscious to a Medina hospital with burns and cuts all over her face on November 8.

Ms Mustapa, who started working in Saudi Arabia in July, accused females in the house where she worked of inflicting her injuries with scissors and a hot iron.

The hospital worker Miea Mirlina told the Saudi Gazette that Ms Mustapa's "body was burned on many places, both legs were almost motionless, some parts of her skin on her head were removed and strong marks of old wounds were on her body including skin loss on lips and head, a fractured middle finger and a cut near an eye. Her body shows how badly she was treated".

The Indonesian president said on Tuesday in Jakarta that the maid's "extraordinary torture" should be investigated.

"I want the law to be upheld and to see an all-out diplomatic effort," Mr Yudhoyono said.

Yesterday, several groups protested in front of the Saudi embassy in Jakarta and earlier in the week the Saudi ambassador to Indonesia was summoned to the foreign ministry to discuss the matter.

Media reports also said that the Indonesian government is sending the women's affairs minister Linda Agum Gumelar to the kingdom to look into both cases and discuss the situation of domestic workers with the Saudi government. As of yesterday afternoon, the Indonesian delegation was still awaiting their Saudi visas.

Attempts to reach the spokesman for the Saudi foreign ministry for comment were unsuccessful.

A spokesman for the interior ministry, reached as he travelled back to Riyadh from Mecca, said he had no immediate information about either incident.

In a telephone interview on Thursday, Didi Wahyudi, who handles citizen protection at Indonesia's consulate in Jeddah, said that Saudi authorities had already launched an investigation into the assault on Ms Mustapa. According to Mr Wahyudi and another source, her former employer, a Saudi female, has been taken into custody until the investigation is completed.

"We want justice for Sumiati," he said. "We try to do our best to get justice for her."

The former employer of Komalasari in Abha has also been arrested pending the investigation into her death, a diplomatic source said.

Nisha Varia, a women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch in New York who has documented the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf, said that foreign domestic workers have few protections against physical and financial abuse. And when they do complain, Ms Varia added, they often are accused of criminal activity by employers.

"We have documented many cases where abused workers were accused of theft, witchcraft, or making false allegations," Ms Varia wrote in an e-mail.

She added that although employers are sometimes prosecuted for ill-treatment of their domestic staff, the outcomes are not always appropriate. "It's not the case that such crimes are never punished," she wrote. "But we have seen, time and again, that the system is stacked against seeing justice done."

Most domestic workers come from extremely poor backgrounds, do not speak Arabic or English, and frequently do not know where they live because there are few street signs in Saudi cities.

According to the Arab News, about one million Indonesians work in the kingdom, of which 80,000 are domestic workers.

 

cmurphy@thenational.ae

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