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Update on Rizana Nafeek

On February 9, 2012

Rizana Nafeek is a Sri Lankan woman on death row in Saudi Arabia. She was convicted of murdering her employer’s four-year-old child in 2005, but has consistently maintained that the child choked to death. As with many migrant workers, she received little help from her own government during her trial. It was not until after her death sentence that the Sri Lankan government intervened in her case, evoking criticism from several groups. And as in many cases, the government’s actions were too slow and too ineffective; while the recruitors who forged documents to bring Nafeek into Saudi Arabia as a minor have been jailed, little else has progressed in Nafeek’s case since our last report.

The often extralegal existence of domestic workers, the prioritization of Saudi employers, and the correspondingly ad-hoc legal verdicts, are particularly pronounced characteristics of this case. Nafeek has been awaiting an official response to her request for clemency since 2007. In November, Sri Lankan officials traveled to Saudi Arabia to ask Rafeek’s former employers for forgiveness in accordance with Saudi's pardoning laws. But allegedly false accounts of the delegation's work made by a Sri Lankan parliament member may have Jeopardized Nafeek's prospects. Shaik Faisal al Otaibi, leader of the Othibi tribe to which Nafeek's former employers belong, threatened Nafeek's case will be impacted by the MP's suggestion that the Othibi tribe has more than one leader. Furthermore, Otaibi claims the Sri Lankan delegation lied about the current circumstances of Nafeeks case, as neither the tribe nor the Saudi government has indicated Nafeek will be released. The leader, who was appointed by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, is demanding an apology.

Saudi Arabia’s legal policy towards migrants is volatile to the detriment of these workers, as well as to the groups and governments working on their behalf. However, if Otaibi's claims are true, the Sri Lankan government must also accept responsibility; whether the delegation truly deceived the Sri Lankan parliament and public, or whether the delegation clumsily mishandled their assignment, the government did not act with the swift resolution that Nafeek so desperately needs. Faith in the Sri Lankan government’s mission has been meager since its outset.

Rizana's situation reflects the wider relationship existing between Saudi Arabia and migrant-exporting nations, in which migrant-exporters often approach legal cases and permanent policy change with timidity in fear of disrupting the important economic bond. Otaibi’s suggestion that the “false words” of the MP will ruin both Rizana’s case and the Saudi-Sri Lanka relationship demonstrates the convoluted, exponentially weaker position of migrant workers fated to the Saudi legal system.