Another Sri Lankan Domestic Worker faces execution in Saudi

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Dec 7 2015

UPDATE 24/12/2015: Saudi authorities have commuted the worker's sentence to time in prison. The amount of time she will serve is currently unknown.


Three years ago, the Kingdom executed Sri Lankan domestic worker Rizana Nafeek for the death of an infant in her care. Two years ago, Saudi and Sri Lanka signed what was hailed as a “landmark” agreement on migrant domestic worker rights. This year, an unnamed Sri Lankan domestic worker accused of adultery faces death by stoning. The International Domestic Worker’s Federation has launched a petition to halt the execution.

The casual application of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia is not exclusive to migrants – it is handed readily to nationals who challenge ‘political’ authority or are perceived as a threat to the Kingdom’s stability.  But for  migrants there are specific challenges when encountering the Saudi legal system, including unfamiliarity with the legal system, the language, and limited access to translators or lawyers. Consequently, migrants tend to face a lonely legal journey and ungrounded or disproportionate punishments.  The unfair legal environment is compounded by the absence of legal support from Sri Lankan authorities, who often intervene too late in the legal process to make a difference and who lack the financial resources to adequately support the estimated 600,000 Lankan nationals in Saudi.  

The facts of these cases are nearly impossible to speculate. But we can accurately estimate the circumstances leading up to these incidents and surrounding the adjudication of the case itself.  Most death penalty cases involving domestic workers revolve around a fatal crime committed against the employer’s family. Domestic workers charged with these crimes have almost always been subject to protracted physical or mental abuse – so much so that officials and local media warn against the mistreatment of domestic workers. These warnings in PSAs and op-eds generally gain circulation with wide coverage of cases of domestic workers committing some kind of crime, working to heighten suspicion of domestic workers. Rather than improving employers’ treatment of workers, these poorly phrased circulars seek to justify increasing constraints on workers mobility, access to communication, and other basic rights.

The spectre of the menacing foreign domestic worker out to destroy families and undermine social values is thus largely a product of the state,  regurgitated by local media and spun into rumor mills. Popular conceptions include the forceful sexualization of domestic workers imagines them as seductresses out to steal husbands, to disrupt the family unit, and and undermine traditional social values.

The domestic worker now facing the death penalty was charged with adultery and not any crime against her employer. Her partner, a fellow Sri-Lankan migrant, received a lighter sentence.

In Rizana’s case,  the Saudi government cited its inability to interfere in the clemency process established by its interpretation of Islamic legal codes, which requires the family to offer forgiveness (often in exchange for payment).  Now, Saudi officials cite the domestic worker’s guilty plea as a legal obstacle to pardoning the death sentence.  Accordingly, lawyers with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Employment Bureau filed an appeal with the Riyadh court in addition to its public requests for leniency.  Human Rights Watch has noted that this process generally takes a year, and will likely result in a commuted sentence, however the Riyadh court has not yet responded to Sri Lanka’s appeal.

Yet in both cases, Saudi officials possess the authority to redress the faulty legal process,  acquiescence Sri Lanka’s public requests for leniency. and stay the executions. But such ‘leniency’ would distract from a spectacle that serves to denounce “foreign influences” on Saudi society and conveniently distracts from the country’s own social dramas.

In 2013, we asked, Who Failed Rizana Nafeek? Despite the Saudi-Sri Lankan agreement signed in 2014, the question and the answers remain relevant.

Still, this worker’s fate is not yet sealed - Saudi does not release the date of individual executions publically or even to Sri Lankan authorities, rendering the appeal process as opaque as the sentencing itself.  Add your voice to the petition here.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East