Spending five years in a Saudi Arabian jail while facing death by beheading would be traumatic for anyone, let alone for a 17-year-old thousands of miles away from home.
But that's exactly what Rizana Fathima Nafeek, who moved to Riyadh from Sri Lanka to work as a maid, has endured since 2005. Nafeek, now 22, has spent the past half-decade in a Riyadh prison facing a death sentence in a country where she does not speak the language and where she does not have any relatives. Her job, obtained through a Sri Lankan recruitment agency, was supposed to be the ticket out of abysmal poverty for her family, says her mother, Razeena Nafeek. The family of six found it hard to get by on the income that Mohammed Nafeek, her father, earned as a woodcutter in the remote village of Muttur, east of Colombo. "We pinned all our hopes on the job," she adds.
But that opportunity turned into a nightmare just one month after Nafeek who, at 17, carried forged documents that said she was above the legal working age of 18 began her job in the Saudi household. Her employers accused her of murdering their 4-month-old infant. Nafeek later told her mother that the child accidentally choked while being bottle-fed by her. She had no prior experience taking care of a young child, her mother said.
Nafeek was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to death a conviction that rights groups say was based on a confession made under duress and the forged passport that changed her status to that of an adult. But last month, the sentence was upheld by Saudi Arabia's highest court, prompting a fresh wave of calls from Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and international rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud to pardon Nafeek. The European Union and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights have indicated that they, too, will be making similar appeals. If the King ratifies the sentence, then execution by beheading would be imminent.
Nafeek's may be the most high-profile case facing a Sri Lankan domestic worker in the Middle East, but it is not the first and will not be the last. In 2009, over 77,000 Sri Lankan women went to the Middle East as domestic workers, and some 42,000 went to Saudi Arabia, according to that government's statistics. Sri Lankan women working abroad play a vital role in the Sri Lankan economy; of the nation's over 1 million overseas workers, women's paychecks accounted for more than half of the $3.4 billion sent back to Sri Lanka in foreign remittances last year.
Like Nafeek, most of these women come from the nation's poorest families and hardly have any prior work experience. The unskilled nature of their work and expectations of their employers can make for a volatile work environment, often complicated further by the lack of a common language. "Sri Lankan migrant workers face a multitude of obstacles at all stages of the migration process: predeparture, in service, and upon return and reintegration," says Pramodini Weerasekera, a program officer with the International Labor Organization, which is advising the Sri Lankan government on enhancing training networks and sending more skilled workers abroad. "Many of these issues stem from the skill-level profile of Sri Lanka's migrant workforce where the majority of workers fall within the low-skilled and housemaid categories."
In 2009, there were 4,500 complaints lodged by maids working in Saudi Arabia to Colombo's Foreign Employment Bureau. Most complaints were about a lack of communication, sexual harassment or no payment of wages, but some were much worse. Last week, a domestic worker who returned to central Sri Lanka from Jordan reported being forced to swallow at least six nails. Over the weekend, another woman who returned from Kuwait had 14 nails removed from her body at a hospital in the central Sri Lankan town of Kurunegala. These cases follow close on the heels of yet another gruesome story: in August, 50-year-old Lahanda Purage Ariyawathie, a grandmother of two, returned to Sri Lanka from Saudi Arabia five months after accepting a job as a maid. Her body was dotted with small, oozing wounds. Doctors later removed over 20 nails and needles that had been embedded in her body. Ariyawathie said that hot nails were embedded in her body by her Saudi employers who were dissatisfied with her work. Saudi authorities have rejected the claim.
Ariyawathie says that language or the lack of a common one was the main cause of her troubles. "They did not understand what I said, and I did not understand what they said. They asked for lime, and I would bring tomatoes," she says. Her alleged torture sequence began after about two weeks at the household, when her employers' patience ran out. She says that the woman would hold her while the man inserted the hot nails into her. Months later, she was released from the job and returned home when her wounds did not heal and began to fester.
The inability to communicate appears to be a big factor in Nafeek's case as well. Her family says she does not speak Arabic, and they are unsure whether she received any training before her departure. She could not understand the court proceedings, according to Basil Fernando, director of policy and program development at the AHRC. The Hong Kongbased advocacy group has been paying for Nafeek's legal help during the appeals process. "We just want our daughter back. She has suffered enough," says Nafeek's mother. The family spoke to Nafeek during the last week of October. She sounded frightened and scared, still waiting to hear when and if her sentence would be carried out. "She does not know whether it is likely to be anytime soon or whether we have some more time," says her mother. "Neither do we."
Fortunately, those who are closely monitoring the case like Fernando say there is still hope for Nafeek. Available evidence, including Nafeek's retraction of her confession made to police, suggests that the infant died due to an accident, and the sentence is being evaluated by an adviser to the Saudi King. One opposition MP has told Nafeek's family that the Saudis are expected to make a favorable decision after the hajj pilgrimage ends later this week, due to international appeals.
But, AHRC's Fernando cautions that Riyadh has carried out sentences without any prior warning in the past. As Nafeek's family waits in fear for any news, hope for leniency for their daughter has replaced the wish for a better life. "We don't want anything," says her mother, fighting back tears. "We just want her back."