From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya The extremely sad and shocking news of housemaid Rizana Nafeek’s sudden execution in Saudi Arabia reached Sri Lanka on Wednesday. This was the day before parliament began the debate on a motion to impeach the Chief Justice – the culmination of a process widely condemned as having failed to adhere [...]


Justice was buried with Rizana


From the sidelines By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The extremely sad and shocking news of housemaid Rizana Nafeek’s sudden execution in Saudi Arabia reached Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

This was the day before parliament began the debate on a motion to impeach the Chief Justice – the culmination of a process widely condemned as having failed to adhere to basic tenets of fair trial and natural justice. Members of the ruling coalition with their two thirds majority predictably passed the resolution. But far from resolving the crisis their action has deepened it, because in doing so they have ignored a Supreme Court interpretation of the Constitution in relation to the matter. 

A sense of collective outrage fuelled by concerns for the rule of law and the fate of the country’s democratic institutions, has brought together the country’s intelligentsia, professional organisations, religious leaders, the business community, opposition and other activists in protests over the past several months. By contrast, the ‘counter demonstrations’ that have been witnessed lately in support of the impeachment have a patently manufactured air about them.

The issues leading up to the fate of Rizana and that of the CJ may be different, but both cases bring into focus questions relating to our elected representatives. Specifically, whether they have failed in their duty to the people who voted them into power, in failing to safeguard every citizen’s right to justice. Shouldn’t this apply regardless of whether it is a poor woman struggling to keep the home fires burning by working as a housemaid in West Asia, or it is the country’s top lawyer?

Parliamentary proceedings on Wednesday were interrupted when news of Rizana’s fate was conveyed. Ironically it was barely an hour after Foreign Employment Minister Dilan Perera had expressed optimism about an imminent pardon for her in response to a letter from president Rajapaksa to the Saudi King on Sunday. Speeches were made in parliament by minister Perera and Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, expressing sympathies and condolences. Minister Hakeem stressed that the “government took all possible steps” to secure her pardon and that “it was not for want of trying that this happened.” Minister Perera said “we tried all means, without disrespecting Sharia law…” etc. But is this true?

The Government’s response of recalling Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Saudi Arabia in an apparent show of displeasure over his failure to achieve a favourable outcome for Rizana, looks more like a case of shooting the messenger. This is in the light of the Government’s demonstrated lack of will to intervene, not just in this case but in those of other Sri Lankan migrant workers as well. Several have been beheaded, like Rizana, in the Saudi kingdom and other Arab states without the benefit of legal assistance in their trials. This inaction seems to be a matter of policy. Over the past seven years since Rizana’s arrest and incarceration there have been periodic statements from the government expressing hopes of a positive outcome in her case. Was this mere eyewash to mislead people? 

The government refused to pay the legal fees for Rizana’s appeal. It was the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission that launched a campaign and raised these funds. The embassy arranged for a law firm and worked with them on the basis that AHRC would pay the fees. The AHRC’s efforts and media publicity led to awareness worldwide about the girl who was in fact a minor aged 17 at the time an infant in her care died, leading to the charge of murder.

It was the AHRC that did extensive dissemination of information to reveal to the world that Rizana’s confession to the Saudi police had been obtained under duress, that she did not have the benefit of a translator at the time, that she later retracted the original statement, and that she had been dispatched to West Asia as a housemaid by unscrupulous job agents who had falsified her date of birth on documents to make out that she was an adult. 

The AHRC also pointed out that there had been no postmortem of the deceased infant and therefore there had been no forensic evidence to support the murder charge. When the death sentence was given, and upheld even after the appeal, the worldwide sympathy generated through AHRC’s efforts resulted in calls from several countries and organisations to the Saudi Government to commute Rizana’s sentence or grant a pardon.

Notwithstanding their expressions of concern, it is not even clear whether government representatives were familiar with the circumstances of this case. For instance minister Perera made an incorrect statement in 2010 to the effect that ‘even the Saudi king’ could not pardon Rizana, and that this could be done only by the parents of the deceased child. According to Saudi law the AHRC says there are two options: a pardon by the parents, or a pardon by the King. The rights organisation expressed regret that the government was not pursuing negotiations with the parents, while the plea to the King continued. At one point they protested that “the interventions by the Sri Lankan Government appear to be confined to public statements.”

In parliament on Wednesday Minister Perera mentioned numerous government representatives who went to Saudi Arabia supposedly to plead Rizana’s case. Apparently none of these delegations achieved results. The absence of a realistic approach based on sound information is revealed in a November 2010 letter from AHRC to the Sri Lanka embassy in Riyadh, drawing attention to contradictory communications. On the one hand optimism was being expressed by the law firm that they, along with the embassy, were coordinating with Saudi officials to get the parents to withdraw their claim. On the one hand, an unnamed embassy spokesman had told the Sri Lanka Guardian website that it is not allowed, according to Saudi custom, to talk directly to the affected family.

It is common knowledge that the Government encourages migrant labour to West Asia because of the economic benefit to the country. Worker remittances have become the biggest source of foreign exchange, helping to bridge the trade deficit each year. In 2009 they completely offset the deficit. Those who seek employment as housemaids in West Asia are, like Rizana, driven to do so out of poverty. Rizana’s extreme poverty was evident from the many photographs that appeared in the media, of her family in Mutur, Trincomalee. The Government’s denial of assistance to such persons when they face arbitrary and inhuman legal processes in foreign lands reflects not only callous disregard for the dignity of labour, but a contempt for the very notion of justice.

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.