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UPDATE: Mentally Troubled Maids at Risk for Execution in Saudi

On March 17, 2013

Update: A Saudi court has sentenced Tarsim to the death penalty. She will also face eight months in prison and 200 lashes for her attempted suicide. Indonesian attorneys will appeal the case. The victim's father will not accept blood money (diya), so reversing the court's decision will be Tarsim's only prospect for amnesty.

Originally published on Feburary 23, 2013:

Prosecutors recently announced they will seek the death penalty against Karni Bt Medi Tarsim, a domestic worker accused of murdering a four year-old girl last September. The girl's father preemptively maintained that he will not pardon Karni, the only legal act possible to stay an execution.

Immediately after the murder, Karni attempted to commit suicide by ingesting detergent. According to psychiatrist Dr. Khalid Al-Oufi, she continues to exhibit characteristics of a psychological disturbance. Karni's attitude towards the murder, as well as its particularly gruesome nature, led many professional and legal observers to comment on her unsound state of mind. In subsequent reports of the widely publicized murder, Saudi citizens also speculated that Karni suffered from mental illness. However, the murder elicited strong and sometimes prejudiced emotions across the nation, which may negatively influence the court’s ultimate decision.

Though the UN Commission on Human Rights resolution 2004/67 implores states against executing "a person suffering from any form of mental disorder," Saudi Arabia has already imposed the death penalty on another mentally-troubled domestic worker; Zainab Bini Duhri Rupa continues to languish on death row for murdering her employer in 1999. Saudi police believed that Rupa suffered from mental-imbalances, likely caused by employer mistreatment, but this observation did not factor into her trial. Rupa did not receive any legal representation during her interrogation or throughout her trial, as Indonesia has only recently provisioned free legal services to its expatriate workers. In 2006, Amnesty International launched a letter writing campaign to persuade King Abdullah to secure Rupa’s reprieve, but her fate remains bleak unless the victim's child pardons her. (Another petition is active here.)

However, Karni will benefit from three Saudi defense lawyers provided by the Indonesian embassy. Indonesia's prompt actions may give Karni a chance for a fairer trial; lawyers provided to another Indonesian maid previously at risk for execution recently procured a favorable ruling. Indonesia is one of the few sending-nations that provides legal support to migrants from the early stages of prosecution. Most sending-nations intervene only after migrants are sentenced to death. In such cases, including Rizana Nafeek’s, legal aid often arrives far too late to be of any value.

Dr. Al Oufi also urged psychologists and counselors to determine the reasons domestic workers commit crimes against employers and their families. Saudi social counselor Muhammad Al-Sheikh noted that "when a person feels prosecuted and mistreated, they can be tempted to take revenge in a variety of ways." Last year, the Dubai police also admitted that most domestic worker crime is linked to employer mistreatment. Both physical and psychological abuse can compound overtime and drive domestic workers to instability or depression, which can further descend into vengeance or suicide. In Rupa’s case, employer mistreatment very likely induced trauma and eventually precipitated her actions. Rupa told friends that both her employer and his son treated her cruelly, in one instance pouring hot water over her.

These factors are not always considered by courts, in part because accused migrant workers rarely receive the translating or legal services essential to a fair trial. Currently, at least 45 other Indonesian women are currently on death row, five no longer able contend for reprieve. Amnesty International estimates the total number of individuals on death row to be over 120, composed primarily of foreign nationals.