Beheaded Bangladeshi Migrants Victims of Saudi Legal System

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Oct 14 2011

The dangers migrants face in foreign legal systems was touched upon briefly in our previous article spotlighting the impetus behind travel bans. The marginal legal rights migrants possess are further compromised once they commit a crime; the moment a migrant becomes a suspect, causal mistreatment threatens to spiral into sanctioned legal abuse. Their peripheral legal status assures them very limited access to representation or legal aide, as well as disproportionate and asymmetrical punishments - among other practices at odds with bilateral and international migrant agreements. Language barriers and general unfamiliarity with the foreign legal system are additional burdens that prevent migrants from fully and fairly engaging in their own cases. Moreover, impotent migrant government agencies - whether due to neglect or corruption - often forsake migrants to struggle with the host government's overbearing legal environment on their own.

The cumulative effect of these conditions subject migrants to circumstances varying from the inconvenient to the life-threatening and deadly; in Dubai, cumbersome and confusing paperwork requirements will allow officials to incarcerate a maid who recently gave birth - all because she cannot prove the father of her child is her legal husband. But beyond these nonsensical convictions exist the even more harrowing realities of discriminatory legal systems; this past Friday, Saudi Arabia publicly beheaded eight Bangladeshi migrants who were accused of murdering an Egyptian man in 2007. The UN, human rights organizations, and the Bangladeshi public have decried the brutal execution, as well as the dubious judicial process that sanctioned such extreme punishment. (Read more about the circumstances of the case here).

While details of the case are still unclear, the legal hurdles to government agencies and oversight organizations are already evident. The Bangladeshi embassy claims to have advocated on the men’s behalf for the past four years, by providing them with a lawyer and by attempting to mediate with the murder victim’s family. Bangladeshi officials also claim the President's request for clemency was rebuked by the Saudis, who would only allow the murder victim's family to stay the execution.

Despite (unsuccessfully) negotiating with the Egyptian victim's family, the government failed to inform either the families of the accused or the Bangladeshi public at large of the eminent punishment. The Law and Mediation Centre in Bangladesh criticized the lack of transparency throughout the case's proceedings, arguing that NGOs and IGOs were consequently deprived of the opportunity to directly pressure the Saudi government. While the Bangladeshi embassy may have advocated on behalf of the men within the Saudi legal system - by offering the murder victim's family money in exchange for a pardon - officials admitted they only very timidly pressured the Saudi regime itself, in fear of disrupting relations with the nation that employs over 2 million of its citizens. NGOs have the advantage as third-party advocates to publicly condemn and challenge the regime, free from the diplomatic concerns that subdue the demands of government agencies. See responess to the execution from two Bangladeshi NGOs here and here.

These are not the first of Saudi's beheadings. In June, an Indonesian maid was beheaded for murdering her allegedly abusive employer. In late September, a Sudanese man met the same horrific fate for "practicing sorcery." The OHCHR claims that migrants compromised at least 20 of the 58 individuals executed this year. Anywhere from 5 to 25 migrants are currently on death row, and one faces decapitation for murdering her employer's abusive father. Saudi citizens also face decapitation under similar instances, but the tendency to undervalue migrant accounts (in favor of employers, other Saudi citizens, or because of generalized, unfavorable social conceptions of migrant workers) subjects them to an even more precarious judicial process; the dim likelihood of a fair trial for foreign workers orients this already objectionable practice to a question of migrant rights, in addition to one of general human rights.

The lasting impact of the public outrage voiced in response to these executions is difficult to determine; international condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian rights violations has historically effected little change in the Kingdom's policies. But NGO- and domestic criticism may pressure Bangladesh to adopt stronger positions against future abuses and to pursue stronger legal protections for their citizens. At the very least, widespread criticism of both the Saudi and Bangladeshi governments contributes to a world environment increasingly intolerant to such gross violations of human rights.

See Amnesty International's full report here.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East