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Indonesia attempts to secure reprieve for Tuti Tursilawati

On December 26, 2011

Tuti Tursilawati, 27, is an Indonesian migrant on death row. Her story is like many others: left to wander the parameters of Saudi Arabia's discriminatory judicial system with sporadic aid from her own government, she agonizingly awaits to hear her fate: last-minute amnesty or execution via decapitation. Tuti faces execution for murdering her employer during an alleged rape incident. Reports revealed that the employer had abused her sexually since 2009, but Tuti fought back when he attempted to rape her in March 2010, striking him with a fatal blow.

Efforts to release migrants from the death penalty generally follow the same pattern: the migrant's government appeals to the victim's family for forgiveness, which often involves a “blood money” payment. Saudi government policy is to stay executions only if the conditions of forgiveness are met. In keeping with the pattern, former Indonesian president BJ Habibie landed in Riyadh Saturday to negotiate with the victim’s family, as well as the Saudi government, for Tuti’s life. Prior to Habibie's efforts, the current President sent a letter to the regime in October, pleading for her release.

Tuti’s situation reflects the overall failure of Saudi migrant policies. Since few laws exist to protect migrants - especially domestic workers who exist in the hidden sphere of the household - abusive conditions run virtually unrestrained, with no effective means of redress or punishment. Domestic workers must often cope with exploitation and mistreatment in order to avoid further abuse or the loss of employment opportunities, isolated and subject to psychological agony that compounds over time. Domestic workers are at great risk of protracted abuse, which can easily erupt into life-threatening situations for either migrants or their employers. Had an avenue been available for Tuti to redress abuse, the situation in March 2010 may never have come to fruition.

But Indonesia also carries much of the responsibility. Tuti is one of five Indonesian migrants on death row in Saudi Arabia, and part of the 32 worldwide. Migrant Care, Indonesia’s leading migrant rights NGO, accuses the Indonesian government of doing too little, too late. While Indonesia assigned a Migrant Worker's Task Force to handle death sentences in Saudi, and claims to have saved and repatriated 44 migrants, Migrant Care asserts that the Task Force represents an ineffective “ad-hoc” fix rather than a long term solution. The Task Force addresses problems as they arise, rather than working to enforce permanent policies that would prevent legal abuses.

Migrant workers do commit crimes, and some are truly guilty. But Saudi’s legal system tends to treat migrants in an entirely unequal framework, often barring them form proper representation and even translating services. Consequently, migrants, guilty or not, are barred from the rights that all accused parties deserve. The absence of migrant rights in the judicial process inflates the number of the guilty, and can result in harsher, iniquitous punishments.

Migrant Care executive directory Anis Hidayah emphasizes the necessity of ratifying the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers, which will require Indonesia to institute legislation that establishes standards of migrant treatment in receiving nations. So far, Indonesia has shied away from permanent, long-term protective laws, instead pursuing indefinite bans that have historically had little lasting effect. Preventing abuse, minimizing the opportunity for exploitation, and ensuring evenhanded legal treatment would create a lawful environment favorable to both nations.