RIYADH // Rizana Nafeek's indigent family fell on hard times when civil war forced her father, a Sri Lankan woodcutter, to stop going to his traditional cutting forest. Salvation seemed to appear, however, when a local recruiter suggested that Nafeek, then 17, go to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. The agent put a false birth date on her passport so officials would not see that she was underage.
But now Nafeek faces a death sentence after being convicted of murdering a four-month-old infant put in her care by the Saudi family who hired her in 2005. Entering her fifth year in Saudi detention, Nafeek is appealing her sentence. She contends that she did not harm the child and has retracted the confession - written in Arabic, which she does not understand - on which her conviction was based.
An Asian human-rights group assisting her appeal says the child's death was a tragic accident that should not be compounded by executing Nafeek, which would violate international conventions, accepted by Riyadh, banning death sentences for crimes committed by juveniles. Nafeek "is facing the death sentence for a mistake made while feeding a four-month-old baby which resulted in the death of the child, which sadly has been misunderstood as a crime," the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission says in an online statement.
Nafeek's ordeal is extreme, but it highlights the perils faced by many women from her part of the world as they seek to escape dire poverty. Rights groups say they are exploited by human traffickers posing as legitimate employment agencies, thrust into a totally foreign language and culture, and work in an environment with few legal protections. Her story also raises the sensitive issue of how an estimated 1.5 million foreign domestic workers, mostly maids, are treated in Saudi Arabia.
"While many - enjoy decent work conditions," others endure "slavery-like conditions" that include "non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse," said a report issued in 2008 by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. The report caused a furore in Saudi Arabia, where newspaper columnists and government officials rejected it as one-sided and exaggerated. Last year, the government-appointed Shura Council adopted regulations laying out fair treatment of domestic help. But there is no mechanism to enforce the regulations.
About three-quarters of the 500,000 Sri Lankans working in Saudi Arabia are housemaids. This account of Nafeek's story comes from Saudi newspapers, reports by human-rights organisations, interviews with Sri Lankan diplomats in Riyadh and others familiar with her case. In a 2008 interview, Abdul Mohammed Marleen, who was the Sri Lankan ambassador at the time, said Nafeek came from a "very poor family" in the mainly Muslim village of Muttur in eastern Sri Lanka. Her woodcutter father, Mr Marleen said, was thrown out of work when the Tamil Tiger insurgency took over the forest where he used to chop wood.
"Knowing the pathetic situation of the family, a recruiting agency stepped in and said it would send Rizana to Saudi Arabia as a housemaid," Mr Marleen said. It forged her passport to say she was 23 so as not to violate international anti-human trafficking laws and Saudi labour regulations, he added. In the kingdom, Nafeek was sent to a family in Dawadmi, about 400km west of Riyadh. Although she had no training in infant care, including bottle-feeding, she was asked to look after the family's infant son. Soon after, he choked to death after being bottle-fed by Nafeek, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission.
Kifaya Ifthikar, a Sri Lankan woman who regularly visits Nafeek, said she was told by Nafeek that she fed the baby, put him in his cot and went to the kitchen. "She didn't know he was dead until the mother saw the baby and started screaming," Ms Ifthikar related. Nafeek had been with the family less than two weeks when the child died, Mr Marleen said, noting that within this short period "there could not be any motive for her to kill the child out of revenge or anger towards the employer".
Still, the parents accused Nafeek of strangling the child and called police. "In custody, she's alleged to have confessed to the killing," Mr Marleen said. "But her position is that she doesn't know how to speak Arabic." According to Saudi press reports, the police asked someone who claimed he spoke Nafeek's native language of Tamil to translate during her interrogation, but that person is no longer in the kingdom.
At trial, Nafeek did not have an attorney and her confession was the basis for her 2007 conviction and death sentence. Since then, the case has gone from a local court to an appeals courts and back. One appeals court affirmed the death sentence, but a higher appeals court instructed the Dawadmi court to take another look at the matter. The last hearing, held in December, adjourned without a new date for convening.
The Asian Human Rights Commission, which has hired a Saudi lawyer, Kateb Fahad al Shammari, to handle Nafeek's appeal, says in its online statement that after "careful consideration of all facts we are of the view that what has happened is an enormous tragedy but it can lead to - a further tragedy of an innocent inexperienced teenager being executed". Nafeek was 17 at the time of the child's death and the Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits execution for crimes committed when an offender is under 18.
Although under Saudi law Nafeek could be released if the child's parents pardon her, they have declined to do so. Bandar bin Mohammed al Aiban, the president of Saudi Arabia's Human Rights Commission, a government-appointed body, declined to comment on Nafeek's situation while it is on appeal in the courts. He added that the commission is monitoring the case. Ms Ifthikar, a Sri Lankan dental surgeon who lives in Riyadh, said she decided to regularly visit Nafeek after reading about her. "I felt I should do something as a human," she said.
Nafeek is held in a one-storey house that has been converted into a women's detention centre, and that generally has between five and seven prisoners, Ms Ifthikar said. She added that Nafeek is being treated well by her Saudi jailers. "She's being looked after 100 per cent properly," Ms Ifthikar said. But, she added, "there should be some mercy and she should come out". firstname.lastname@example.org