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Combating Disinformation In the Wake of Rizana Nafeek’s Execution

On January 25, 2013

The international condemnation of Rizana Nafeek’s unjust execution has not elicited a positive response from Saudi authorities. There have been no promises for reform or pledges to reexamine the justice system’s flawed management of migrant workers. Instead, Saudi Arabia has adopted a defensive approach to combat these “defamatory” and “misleading statements.” Officials denied Nafeek was underage and claimed that she not only had a lawyer, but that the Sri Lankan embassy was deeply involved in the case. However, Nafeek’s passport was falsified - a fact that was established years ago, and that has even been confirmed by Saudi authorities in the past. Additionally, officials distorted the support mechanisms available to Nafeek; she did not have a lawyer during her initial confession, she was not provided with a translator during her initial trials, and the embassy did not intervene in her case until she was sentenced death. Saudi authorities claim Nafeek was awarded “her full legal rights’ - but the absence of sufficient legal rights for domestic workers is precisely what NGOs have denounced.

Opinion commentators and media figures have also parroted similar distortions in defense of the legal system’s treatment of foreign workers. This article cross-posted in the Saudi Gazette begins, predictably, by justifying Nafeek’s execution with problematic references to Sharia. Saudi’s misappropriation of the Sharia is a complex discussion that is beyond the scope of this article - however, it is worth exploring less politically motivated, mainstream interpretations of the death penalty in Islamic jurisprudence. The following excerpts are from a translation of a speech by Dr Hamdy Murat, a professor of Sharia at Al Balqa Applied University in Jordan:

Sharia stresses averting punishments (Hudud) if suspicions arise. Prophet Mohammed said: “Avert punishments if suspicions arise”. Suspicion means that for any offense that cannot proved 100%, so to speak, punishments should be averted.

“Suspicion” means the presence of deficiency in absolute certainty. If suspicion arises, the punishment set for a certain offense must be prevented and milder penalties should be sought.

Decisive Sharia regulations specify five objectives. After the first objective, which is the preservation of religion, comes the protection of life. Every attempt should always be made to avert capital punishment.

The answer is that the certainty of the person being a murderer must be 100%; allow me to use that expression. If the percentage is lower, no matter what the reason, then suspicion arises in this case.

There was much uncertainty in Nafeek’s case. Her account was at odds with the employer’s account, but there was no forensic evidence to indicate that Nafeek was lying. That there was not 100% certainty is especially evident in the years her case rebounded between courts.

What is the definition of relatives. According to the judiciary, consanguineous relatives are the relatives of the murdered, and if one of them opposes the death penalty imposed on a murderer, the murderer should not be executed.

Media reports indicated the father was willing to grant Nafeek reprieve.

Under Sharia, over the past fifteen centuries, the number of cases where the death penalty was prescribed for committing this crime has not exceeded 10. I am not talking about the twentieth century because it is excluded, nor about the Arab and Muslim countries these days as they do not apply Sharia at all.

In addition, trials concerning the death penalty are seldom fair, and when justice becomes rare, the judgment must be immediately suspended to avoid injustice.

Thus, “divine law” cannot be paraded as justification for Nafeek’s execution for the several reasons listed above. Saudi is renowned, especially amongst its own citizens, for manipulating Sharia according to national interests. Islamic scholars do differ on particular interpretations and applications of Sharia. However, it is widely acknowledged that divine justice cannot be achieved in this life - and consequently, cannot be used so facilely in defense of any Saudi policy.

Examining the author’s succeeding argument also reveal a number of other assumptions and distortions:

Our judicial system is looked at as the rule of thugs who take pleasure in degrading people and shedding their blood.

The international media and human rights organizations attacked us following the beheading of the Sri Lankan maid who was convicted of killing her employer’s child. Numerous Saudi judicial bodies refuted the claims of the international media and went on the defensive by trying to convince everyone of the transparency of our legal system.

In actuality, the judicial system is depicted as deficient and discriminatory of migrant workers. Many migrant worker executions do not receive the same intensity of coverage or condemnation. The outcry in Nafeek’s case was due primarily to the unjust circumstances of her trial, rather than to Saudi’s regular use of the death penalty. That is, the judicial system is rightly criticized when it blatantly fails to uphold justice. But this author fails to discuss particulars of the trial at all - perhaps because there was so little transparency, and because the few details that were disclosed stand in opposition to her argument.

The author attempts to portray coverage of Nafeek’s case as unfair, when in reality such misjudgment regularly befalls migrant workers under Saudi’s legal system. Criticisms erupted because of Saudi’s dismal record of migrant abuse, including the absence of any meaningful protection for domestic workers - not because of an unfounded prejudice against Saudi Arabia.

Another article cross-posted in the Saudi Gazette similarly espouses this imagined victimization; one of the article’s most egregious arguments includes that “Rizana was executed in accordance with the Saudi laws that are clear to all foreigners coming to the Kingdom.” Yet the legal system is completely obscure to migrants who have extremely limited access to translators or to general legal services. Additionally, the article also falsifies Nafeek’s age controversy and glosses over the absence of forensic absence essential to proving Nafeek suffocated the child. (Pieces in the Saudi Gazette itself have consistently maintained that Nafeek was only 17 when the incident took place, and was consequently under the protection of the Convention of the Rights of the Child.)

Additionally, the several cases the original author cites in support of her false sense of victimization are also problematic. The author alleges a Sri Lankan maid injected herself with over 20 nails to frame her employers. Saudi authorities claimed that the maid had colluded with labor firms to blackmail “the Saudi government in order to revoke the new regulations and salary ceilings applies to foreign workers.” This collusion between recruitment agencies and housemaids is a myth constantly parroted in Gulf media, used to justify the lack of protective mechanisms for domestic workers. The Sri Lankan doctors who examined the woman and provided her x-rays gave no indication that she was capable of inserting the nails - present in her thighs and her head, among other places - herself. Saudi authorities seem to have determined the allegations were false without actually examining the maid herself, once again prioritizing the word of the employer. (Additionally, another Sri Lankan maid whose employers jammed 7 nails in her body was examined in Saudi. Her case also proved true.)

The author also alleges that:

Immediately after this incident, two Sri Lankan maids, one in Kuwait and the other in Oman, made similar claims of being tortured by nails. Their claims received virtually no media coverage. So, it seems that any accusation by a foreign worker associated with our country is true until proven false while the complaints of workers in other countries have to be checked and verified before they are published in the media

However, the Kuwaiti story was mentioned in Time as well as Huffington Post, which also mentioned a similar case in Jordan. The extent of defamation the author claims is not only inflated but patently false. Such unfounded allegations perpetuate the misconception that migrant workers do not need improved legal protections, and even encourage individuals to ignore abuse by depicting these cases as either isolated incidents or over-exaggerations.

The author also distort the facts in Ahmed Al-Jizawi’s case. The author claims Egyptians were outraged at his arrest until it became clear he was smuggling narcotics into the country. In actuality, Egyptian citizens protested because Al-Jizawi was arrested for “insulting the king” by condemning the detainment of Egyptian citizens - that is, he was arrested for speaking out against the legal system’s mistreatment of migrant workers. Authorities later claimed the reason for his arrest was carrying Xanax, the anti-depressants the author seems to have conflated with dangerous narcotics.

At one point, the author laments the absence of a legal mechanism to redress the defamation of the nation, and that justice is consequently deficient. Yet, the far more serious legal obstructions that migrant workers face is not cause for any concern.

These unfounded arguments are a conspicuous form of propaganda intended to squash any censure of the regime’s policies, regardless of their legitimacy. Such vociferous opposition to public denunciations of abuse perpetuates the invisibility of domestic workers in the both social and legal spheres.

However, one Saudi Gazette article did provide a slightly more nuanced view of Nafeek’s case, recognizing that employers are responsible for giving domestic workers a reasonable amount of work and for ensuring childcare-givers are experienced. The article notes that employers’ conflation of housemaids with nannies severely over-burdens workers and can lead to incidents similar to Nafeek’s. These opinion pieces that acknowledge employers’ accountability are critical in challenging official and societal conceptions of migrant worker rights.