RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Rizana Nafeek was only 17 when she arrived in Saudi Arabia to work as a housemaid. Two weeks into the job, her employer’s 4-month-old infant choked to death while Nafeek was bottle-feeding the child.
That tragedy led to another.
Convicted of murdering the boy, Nafeek, now 22, was sentenced to death by a Saudi court. Having exhausted her appeals last month, her only hope now is that the child’s parents will forgive her — a step they have declined to take for the past five years.
Nafeek’s story illustrates the perils faced by many foreign domestic workers who come to the kingdom to escape dire poverty at home. Like her, many are victims of human traffickers. Unable to speak Arabic and unfamiliar with Saudi culture, they are at the mercy of their employers and have few legal protections.
Nafeek’s predicament also underscores the capricious nature of the Saudi court system, a bastion of religious conservatives who rule by shariah, or Islamic law, and who have defiantly resisted efforts by King Adullah bin Abdul Aziz to introduce modern legal reforms.
Accused by the parents of strangling their child, Nafeek was taken to the police station where an Indian national was drafted to interpret for the Tamil-speaking Nafeek, who speaks neither Arabic nor English.
It is unclear how well the interpreter spoke Tamil.
In any event, Nafeek signed a “confession” in the police station. She later said she did so under duress and because the interpreter told her she’d be killed if she didn’t sign. She also said she had not understood her police interrogators.
Nafeek had no legal representation at her 2007 trial and was found guilty solely on the basis of the confession. The interpreter did not testify because he could not be found.
Kateb Fahad Al Shammari, a prominent Riyadh lawyer who was hired by an Asian human rights group to handle Nafeek’s appeal, said in an interview this week that Nafeek had had no training in caring for an infant.
“She comes from a really poor family,” Al Shammari added as he shuffled papers to find a picture of her parents standing outside a thatched hut in rural Sri Lanka. Her father is a wood-cutter.
“How can this maid,” the lawyer demanded, “who came here to make money, kill someone?”
In a 2008 interview in Riyadh, then-Sri Lankan Ambassador Abdul A. Mohammed Marleen said that a Sri Lankan recruiting agency, “knowing the pathetic situation” of Nafeek’s poverty-stricken family, “stepped in and said it would send Rizana to Saudi Arabia as a housemaid.”
The agency forged her passport to say she was 23 so as not to violate international anti-human trafficking laws and Saudi labor regulations, Marleen added.
Nafeek had been with the family less than two weeks, “so there could not be any motive for her to kill the child out of revenge or anger towards the employer,” the ambassador said.
Human rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, and the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, have appealed to King Abdullah to pardon Nafeek.
“After careful consideration of all facts we are of the view that what has happened is an enormous tragedy but it can lead to … a further tragedy of an innocent inexperienced teenager being executed,” the Hong Kong-based Commission said in an online statement.
They point out that the kingdom is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bans execution for crimes committed when an offender is under 18 years old.
The Supreme Court endorsed Nafeek’s death sentence in October. Capital punishment is usually carried out by beheading in Saudi Arabia.
Under Saudi law, the child’s father, Naif Jiziyan Khalaf Al-Otaibi, and his wife could stop Nafeek’s execution if they forgave her or accepted financial compensation known as “blood money.”
Unless they do so, Al Shammari said, the king cannot overturn the sentence. All he can do, the lawyer explained, is delay its implementation indefinitely by declining to sign the authorization to proceed.
A Sri Lankan newspaper recently reported that in the wake of an appeal for clemency from Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, King Abdullah had instructed officials to meet with the deceased child’s parents.
Attorney Shammari said he could not confirm this, but that other attempts are being made through informal channels to persuade the parents to relent. “We are hoping that the parents will forgive her,” he said.
Nafeek is now in her fifth year in detention in Dawadmi, the small town 240 miles west of Riyadh where she was working for the family.
Kifaya Ifthikar, a Sri Lankan woman who lives in Riyadh and regularly visits Nafeek, said that she is held in a one-story house that has been converted into a women’s detention center.
She is being treated “100 percent properly” by her Saudi jailors, said Ifthikar. “But there should be some mercy and she should come out.”