Global outcry after Saudi Arabia executes Sri Lankan domestic worker


There has been widespread international condemnation of Saudi Arabia after a Sri Lankan domestic worker was beheaded on Wednesday.

Rizana Nafeek was convicted of smothering her employers’ four-month-old child to death in 2006, a crime she alleged committed while she was a minor.

The infant’s family says that she strangled the child following a dispute with the mother. Nafeek said the child accidently chocked on a bottle of milk.

Nafeek spent seven years in prison before she was beheaded by sword.

Amnesty International issued a statement saying it is unlikely that she received a fair trial.

“Defendants [in murder cases] are rarely allowed formal representation by a lawyer and in many cases are kept in the dark about the progress of legal proceedings against them.”

The Sri Lankan government and human rights groups had been lobbying Saudi authorities to release Nafeek or reduce her sentence to a prison term.

The case was further complicated by the fact that Nafeek had entered the country on a fake passport which said she was 23 when she was in fact only 17 at the time of the baby’s death.

As a minor, Nafeek was too young to be executed under international law.

Human rights groups also say that she had no pre-trial legal access and she later claimed to have been forced to sign a confession after being physically assaulted.


Exploitation and abuse

News of the execution came on the same day that the International Labour Organization published a new report highlighting the way in which “the isolated and unprotected nature of domestic work can render them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,” said Sandra Polaski, Deputy Director-General of the ILO.

The ILO report claims that only 10 per cent of all domestic workers (or 5.3 million) are covered by general labour legislation to the same extent as other workers.

In contrast, nearly 30 per cent, or some 15.7 million domestic work­ers, are completely excluded from the scope of national labour legislation, particularly in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia where abuse and mistreatment of domestic workers is all too frequent.

Every year, thousands of Sri Lankans – mainly women – migrate to the Gulf and Middle East to earn money for their families back home.

Nafeek had only worked as a housemaid for a few weeks before she was accused of murder. She was trying to earn money for her family who had been displaced by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

Remittances constitute 8.8 per cent of Sri Lanka’s GDP according to the World Bank. In 2012 the inflow of migrant’s remittances was US$6.3 million.

But domestic workers routinely face terrible physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their employers.

In 2010, Saudi Arabia was once again the subject of an international outcry after a Sri Lankan maid had 24 nails hammered into her body after she complained about her workload.

In 2011 the ILO adopted a new international labour law, Convention 189, aimed to protect this category of workers against unfair treatment, discrimination and exploitation.

So far seven countries have ratified the Convention and more are expected to join the group in 2013. Saudi Arabia is not among them.