WORLD: A teenager facing beheading in Saudi Arabia will be a test for Shariah law

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The plight of a teen aged girl facing the death sentence in Saudi Arabia, due to an incident that according to her happened while she was trying bottle feed an infant child of four months has received the sympathetic attention of the global media during the last week.

Rizana Nafeek, a 17 year-old girl from a village affected both by civil conflict and the tsunami disaster of December, 2004, went to Saudi Arabia for employment as a domestic worker to support her family, who live in dire poverty. Within 18 days of her arrival she met with the tragic incident in which the infant choked as she was trying to bottle feed him and from that time she has been in Dawadami prison.

On June 16, she was sentenced to death by beheading by a Saudi court after a trial in which she had no legal representation. Her work assignments had been cleaning and other general domestic work but did not include nursing and infant care. However, she was given the task of bottle feeding the child all alone and when she tried to do this, the unfortunate incident took place and she did not have the experience to deal with it.

By the time the family members arrived due to her cries for help, the child was either unconscious or dead. The family blamed the tragedy on the teenager and handed her over to the police who, according to her, ill-treated her and forced her to confess that she had strangled the infant. She was made to repeat the confession at the first hearing of the trial by the police who threatened her. However, after being able to talk to an interpreter sent from the Sri Lankan embassy in Riyadh, she made a second statement to the court, narrating her version of what had really happened. The court sentenced her to death on the strength of her first confession. She was given 30 days to file an appeal but she had no one to help her do this.

The Sri Lankan embassy in Saudi Arabia reported the case to the Sri Lankan government and requested authorization of funds for the filing of the appeal. The Sri Lankan government failed to respond and probably the matter would have gone unattended if not for the media, particularly the BBC Sinhala Service, who broke the news of her situation. Ever since floods of appeals have been made, including appeals from Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Commission.

On July 11, the AHRC, on behalf of several persons who have taken interest in the appeal, deposited monies with Messers Kateb Fahad Al-Shammari, Attorneys-at-Law for the filing of the appeal in court. The firm of lawyers is now pursuing the matter and the Sri Lankan embassy in Saudi Arabia is providing the necessary assistance for the filing of the appeal. The spontaneous reaction of the mass media and human rights organisations across the globe manifested an enormous interest. Now the death sentence on the accused, who was herself a child, at the time of the alleged crime, is raising serious legal, as well as moral issues, not only for Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka but for the whole world.

The story of this case brings to mind Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. It is utter poverty that brought the 17 year old to Saudi Arabia for employment. However, within 18 days she was placed in a situation where the legal systems of the country of domicile and the country of origin were unable to help her in any way. Saudi Arabia provided her with no legal assistance during the trial. The Sri Lankan government does not consider it to be an obligation to provide legal assistance to anyone charged with a crime in any place outside the country. Four Sri Lankans were recently executed in Saudi Arabia. They too were not provided with legal assistance during their trials, either by the Saudi authorities or the Sri Lankan authorities.

What is really being tested here is the merit of a trial without legal representation. However, this is not a new issue. The poor are, for most of the time, denied legal assistance and there are many instances in which ‘fair trial’ is the privilege of those who can pay the legal fees for good and reputable lawyers. The poverty that drives a young girl, who should have been going to school, into employment, has also now created the possibility of her being beheaded. Such is the way that justice and poverty stand in contradiction to each other.

Saudi Arabia is a rich country. There is no dearth of material resources for it to be unable to provide legal aid to persons facing criminal trials, particularly those cases which have the possibility of carrying the death sentence. However, the Saudi government does not consider it an obligation to provide legal assistance even in such cases. Similarly, Sri Lanka is not so destitute as to be unable to afford legal costs in such a case. There are around 400,000 migrant workers from Sri Lanka working in Saudi Arabia who contribute to a considerable part of the foreign exchange of the country. Despite this the government is unwilling to meet the legal fees of a trial. The pretext seems to be that, if costs are paid in one case it will set a precedent in which in which it will also have to be paid in others.

The purpose of legal systems is to ensure justice. Ensuring justice requires that all the parties to the case be given a fair hearing before any punishments are imposed. Imposing punishment without ensuring justice cannot be called humane. It is inhumane systems of justice that create the distrust between the rulers and the ruled. The outcome of cases such as that of Rizana Nafeek is that it will generate further distrust of the justice system in Saudi Arabia as well as that of Sri Lanka.

The Asian Human Rights Commission issued an urgent appeal this week to the Muslim scholars throughout the world to reflect on, and intervene, in Rizana Nafeek’s case. Muslim scholars are now faced with a similar situation as the one that Victor Hugo dealt with in Les Misérables. It is an occasion for these scholars to reflect, gravely, on all the issues of justice and humanity involved in this case. Rizana Nafeek’s case will test the justice system in Saudi Arabia and Shariah law in general, for better or for worse.

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Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-163-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Campaigns : Save Rizana Nafeek
Issues : Victims assistance & protection,