Have governments or advocates failed Saudi domestic workers?

Have governments or advocates failed Saudi domestic workers?

On Wednesday January 9, 2013 a young woman in Saudi Arabia was executed by the government in a case that has brought together global advocates, agencies and governments. The campaign to save her life lasted almost 7 years. But the campaign failed. Despite the global appeal from human rights activists worldwide, including the Islamic Human Rights Commission based in London and a personal appeal for clemency from Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa sent to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.

Even Britain’s Royal Prince of Whales is said to have contacted the Saudi King Abdullah in October 2010, although the Royal Office did not deny or confirm this story. If the story is true the Prince is only one of many who asked for clemency for the young woman.

The truth of the matter is that the combined international work to save the life of one Sri Lankan foreign domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Rizana Fathima Nafeek, could not reach its goal. Advocates worldwide are now exploring why this campaign failed and why this order for execution stayed.

But the question all advocates are asking now is this: can lives be saved in the future?

When the completion of the order of execution by beheading for Rizana Nafeek was confirmed on Wednesday 9 January, 2013 by the Office of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Affairs from the capital of Riyadh, advocates worldwide realized at that moment their petitions, letters, articles and protests, in the attempt to save the life of Nafeek, had not worked.

It is assumed that numerous advocates and activists on that day who had worked for years in hopes of saving Rizana’s life felt personal failure after hearing that orders in the beheading execution had been completed.

“International law, accepted as binding by Saudi Arabia, is clear that it is unlawful to execute someone who was under 18 years old when they allegedly committed a crime,” said United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns on January 11, two days after Rizana was executed. “Moreoever, beheading is a particularly cruel form of execution,” he added.

Latest statistics now reveal that there are currently 52.6 million domestic workers worldwide with Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia employing the most domestic workers. Africa, Europe and the Arab region are next in the count of domestic workers. Today the number of foreign domestic workers inside the Saudi Arabian region has reached somewhere between 876,596 to 1.5 million.

Saudi Arabia is known as one of the world’s largest employers of domestic workers in the Gulf region, although forced labour is currently illegal in Saudi Arabia. But this does not mean that illegal forced labour does not exist in the region. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable to forced labour and other conditions of hardship because they are viewed widely to be ‘outside’ the ‘public’ labour system in Saudi society.

“Domestic work has been absent for a very long time from public policy debates and this is mainly the case because domestic workers are employed by private individuals, in private households, they work for families and homes rather than for workplaces such as factories or offices, so for a long time domestic workers were absent from the debate on social reforms and labour protection,” said Martin Oelz, Legal Specialist on Working Conditions with the ILO – International Labour Organization.

In April 2012, according to the Jakarta Globe, Saudi Arabia had 1,700 Indonesian nationals serving out prison terms. The previous year on the same month, in April 2011, 22 migrant domestic workers were pardoned from sentences they had received in Saudi courtrooms. Along with pardons from King Abdullah and formal releases from the families who had charged them with crimes, they were allowed to return to their home regions.

Although labour laws in Saudi Arabia require that all workers be at least 18 years of age, the Royal Embassy of Saudia Arabia in Washington, D.C. states that the Law “does not apply” to domestic workers. This essentially means that domestic workers have little to no protections or legal recourse in any Saudia Arabian court under the Law.

In spite of this Saudi Arabia has continued to convey that they are supporting efforts to “fully protect domestic workers” in the workplace. This guarantee was made specifically in a 2011 joint statement made during the ILO – International Labour Organization’s annual conference.

“…all countries [which includes Saudi Arabia] supported the efforts to fully protect domestic workers, in line with the specificities of that type of work…,” said a portion of the joint statement during the 100th Session of the ILO conference in June 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Over the last decade, discrimination against migrant domestic workers throughout the Gulf has become a growing and serious issue. Rising pressures in the domestic job market inside the region is at an all time high and has contributed to increased migrant racial discrimination. Gender for domestic workers is also a factor that works against women workers in Saudi Arabia who work off-the-grid. Specific restrictions that exist for all women in Saudi Arabia often exists doubly for women domestic workers.

Although the government of Saudi Arabia has formally disagreed with the true age of Rizana at the time of her sentencing, documentation shows that she was a 17-year-old from Sri Lanka who wanted to help make money for her family at the time of her employment. As a member of a family with six children with a father who struggled as a woodworker, Rizana was asked if she wanted to go to Saudi Arabia and signed on willingly with a Sri Lankan based employment agency. When she was asked by the agency if she would go as a housemaid her answer, and the answer of her family, was yes.

When Rizana Nafeek arrived on April 1, 2005 to begin working in Saudi Arabia, she didn’t know then that her entire lifetime of having a job would span only 55 days. She didn’t know then that she and her family had been cheated by job agents who were also trying to cheat the labour system and the government of Saudi Arabia.

To enable Nafeek to work legally inside the region, her documents of employment along with her passport were falsified by her Sri Lankan employment agents. Numbers were changed to show that she was not underage, making her appear instead to actually be 23-years-old. Presenting the teenager as a housemaid ‘with experience’ the agents made money on the deal. Later they were fined, arrested and sanctioned by the government of Sri Lanka for falsifying documents.

Before this, in April 2009, the Sri Lanka Cabinet adopted the National Labour Migration Policy. It’s goal was to: “Enhance the benefits of labour migraton on the economy, society, and migrant workers and their families, and minimize its negative impacts.”

But this goal was never reached in Rizana’s case. As the months and years passed following her arrest, detention, and the years passed in her long wait on death row, Nafeek’s needs and protections under the new Sri Lankan policy was never of benefit to her.

“…new overseas markets and opportunities must be explored and promoted,” outlined Sri Lanka’s Migration Policy. “This will ensure the promotion and development of employment opportunities outside Sri Lanka for Sri Lankans. Labour market surveys, market analyses and market promotion plans in foreign countries will help ascertain the emerging opportunities and new demands,” the policy added.

Less than eight weeks later after Rizana began her employment, the 4-month-old infant son of the Al Otaibi family died while under Nafeek’s care. Charged with the murder of the infant son Nafeek was arrested and sent to jail on May 25, 2007 in the city of Dawdami.

At the time, with her very limited understanding of Arabic, it unknown how much Rizana understood what was actually happening to her.

In her arrest there are no records available of any police investigation, DNA or forensics evidence. There also appears to be no evidence recovery or crime scene investigations in her case. There was also no attorney summoned to give Nafeek knowledge of her rights under arrest. Her case had no jury, no witnesses speaking in her behalf, no clarification of her false employment documents or mention of her true age.

Originally signing a confession that she killed the child, Rizana outlined later that her confession was completely false and made against her will. Stating that she signed a confession while under duress during the time of her arrest, Rizana later retracted her original confession in the court of appeal explaining that the infant died without her volition during what appeared to be a choking accident while he was bottle-feeding.

“We are deeply troubled by reports of irregularities in her detention and trial, including that no lawyer was present to assist her in key stages of her interrogation and trial, that language interpretation was poor, and Ms. Nafeek’s contention that she was physically assaulted and forced to sign a confession under duress,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the Office of the OHCHR – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, during a recent news briefing in Geneva.

Under a failed appeal Nafeek’s death sentence was sealed by decision of Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court in Riyadh. Her court sentence was subsequently signed into motion by Saudi’s King Abdullah before the beheading took place. Much earlier though on December 2010 King Abdullah had moved to suspend Nafeek’s court sentence, but after negotiations with the Al Otaibi family, who would not give pardon in the case, the death sentence set against Nafeek was set for execution as mandated.

What advocates have called the ‘mishandling of this case’ from its beginning in 2005 up to Rizana’s execution in 2013 has brought sustained international concern. It also has brought together the attention of numerous human rights and advocacy organizations including the Asian Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with Safe World for Women and many others who worked without success to push for a legal pardon from execution for Nafeek.

While numerous employers in Saudi Arabia have no specific wish to abuse their domestic workers, reports of physical abuse against domestics have been ongoing and documented in the region. These abuses have included reports of unpaid wages, the withholding of food, forced confinement, excessive workloads and psychological abuse. Human Rights Watch has also highlighted the fate of migrant domestic workers who have faced sexual harassment, forced labour, torture and even death.

Lack of safety for domestic workers in the region is also an issue. Domestic workers are currently not protected under OSH – Occupational Safety and Health policies inside Saudi Arabia.

“Since the work environment in enterprises is different from the domestic environment, not all OSH [Occupational Safety and Health] standards applied to other workers can be applied to domestic workers…,” outlined a representative from Saudi Arabia during the 2010 International Labour Conference in Geneva.

One critical condition in the case of Rizana Nafeek is that she received little to no access to legal or human rights advocates before receiving her death sentence during her incarceration. Even though Nafeek did not speak any Arabic, she was not given the right to translation services at any time during her arrest.

“It appears that the man who translated her statement may not have been able adequately to translate between Tamil and Arabic,” outlined Amnesty International recently on January 8, 2013.

“Executions in Saudi Arabia are generally held in public,” continued Amnesty International. “Prisoners are usually sentenced to death following inadequate legal representation. Saudi Arabia continues to execute prisoners despite the UN General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions on 18 December 2007. The beheading is counter to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and comes at a time when there is a clear international trend away from the use of the death penalty,” continued the human rights agency.

Public beheading is not an unusual punishment under the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. Executions may also be carried out by stoning or firing squad.

“Although the sentences vary greatly according to the discretion of the judge, 260 criminal punishments in Saudi Arabia can be severe and include imprisonment, flogging, amputation, and execution by beheading, stoning, or firing squad,” says a Colombia Law School report by attorney Katherine Scully.

In working to reduce the death penalty worldwide the United Nations currently has 150 Members who have formally abolished the death penalty. This is out of 193 Member States at the United Nations. But the problems for the death penalty with lack of legal protections for domestic workers continues in many global regions.

“In 2011, at least 79 people were reportedly executed in Saudi Arabia. Among them, many were migrant workers, deprived of protection under the Vienna Convention and sentenced to death without respect of fair trial standards,” said the United Nations OHCHR – Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, before the UN General Assembly in July 2012.

According to the current interpretation of Shariah Law in Saudi Arabia, the Nafeek’s death penalty case could only be overturned by either a pardon from the family or a direct order from the Office of Saudi Arabia’s King Abudullah. Under interpretive Shariah Law in the region, the use of ‘Kafala’ – a legal system of sponsorship in Saudi Arabia gives family sponsors complete rights over a domestic worker’s punishment. This puts the supreme power in the hands of employers regardless of case details.

The United Nations opposes the death penalty because it negates the right to life and its application raises serious human rights concerns,” said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay last October.

“It is striking that even well-functioning legal systems have sentenced to death persons who were ultimately proved innocent. In sentencing practice, the decision whether to sentence the convict to death or life imprisonment is often arbitrary and devoid of predictable rational criteria. In this ‘judicial lottery’, the odds are often stacked against those who belong to racial, religious, national, ethnic or sexual minorities,” Pillay continued.

“A death sentence is often imposed on less privileged individuals who do not have sufficient access to effective legal representation,” added Pillay.

While courtrooms in the United States continue to process their own death penalty cases, some U.S. regions have made the punishment illegal under the law. U.S. regions which include the State of New Mexico, the State of New Jersey, and the States of Illinois and Connecticut have now abolished the death penalty as an option available to U.S. state courts.

“Saudi Arabia is one of just three countries that executes people for crimes they committed as children,” said Nisha Varia, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Rizana Nafeek is yet another victim of the deep flaws in Saudi Arabia’s judicial system.”

As flaws are exposed in Rizana’s case, advocates will continue to ask: Are governments or advocates to blame for the death of Rizana Nafeek?

“Court proceedings in Saudi Arabian capital cases typically fall far short of international fair trial standards. Defendants are rarely allowed formal representation by a lawyer and in many cases are kept in the dark about the progress of legal proceedings against them,” says Amnesty International today in response to the news of Rizana Nafeek’s execution.

“Allegations that the offender is a minor are incorrect,” said a formal statement released by Saudia Arabia’s state owned press agency on Sunday January 13, four days after the execution of Rizana Nafeek. “Such allegations are clearly and unequivocally refuted by her age. Her official passport shows that she was 21 years old at the time of committing the crime. As it is universally recognized, the passport is an official document issued by her Government. Moreover, the legal regulations of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia do not allow the recruitment of minors,” continued the statement.

As advocates hope to change the Kafala policy in Saudi Arabia that gives family sponsors complete control over life-and-death decisions in cases including their domestic workers, the road does not look easy. Saudi Arabia does not appear at this time to want to reform its own system.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia categorically rejects any interference in its affairs or in the provisions of its judiciary under any justifications,” adds the Saudi Press Agency in their January 13 statement.


Millions of women and girls around the world turn to domestic work in order to provide for themselves and their families. Instead of guaranteeing their ability to work with dignity and free of violence, governments have systematically denied them key labor protections extended to other workers. Domestic workers, often making extraordinary sacrifices to support their families, are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world. This May 6, 2010 6:40 min video has been produced by Human Rights Watch.


Rupert Colville, spokesperson from the UN OHCHR – Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights speaks out against the rise in the use of the death penalty inside Saudia Arabia in 2011. This 2:07 min video was produced by the OHCHR and posted on Youtube in January 2012.


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Additional sources for this WNN story include Amnesty International, Asian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department, Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia Washington, D.C., Colombia Law School, International Labour Organization, UN OHCHR – Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Geneva, ILO Labour Office Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saudi Press Agency, The Sunday Times and Dawn news Pakistan.


Human rights journalist Lys Anzia’s work has appeared on Truthout, CURRENT TV, ReliefWeb, UNESCO, World Bank Publications, UN Women, Vital Voices, Huffington Post World, The Guardian News and Thomson Reuters Foundation Trustlaw, among many others. Anzia is also the Founder/Editor-at-Large for WNN – Women News Network. 


The story above was originally published for WNN – Women News Network and can be found in it’s entirety here.

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