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UPDATE(Saudi Arabia/Sri Lanka): Your urgent intervention is needed to save Rizana Nafeek who must appeal against the death sentence before 16 July 2007

July 9, 2007



Update on Urgent Appeal

9 July 2007

[UG-004-2007: SAUDI ARABIA/SRI LANKA: A Special Appeal under Extraordinary Circumstances for Nafeek Rizana; UP-093-2007: SAUDI ARABIA/SRI LANKA: Please immediately write to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs to save the life of its citizen; RE: UA-207-2007: SAUDI ARABIA/SRI LANKA: Death sentence to young girl requires urgent intervention by the Sri Lankan government]
UP-097-2007: SAUDI ARABIA/SRI LANKA: Your urgent intervention is needed to save Rizana Nafeek who must appeal against the death sentence before 16 July 2007

SAUDI ARABIA/SRI LANKA: Death penalty; legal assistance

Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received updated information regarding the death sentence of a Rizana Nafeek whose appeal will be finalized on 16 July 2007. This information is also with some corrections including legal costs and additional information. While the Sri Lankan government in Colombo has not approved the payment of legal costs, the father of Rizana Nafeek has sought the pardon of the father of the deceased baby. We seek your support in also writing to the father. (For previous references to this case, please see UA-207-2007, UP-093-2007, AHRC-PL-023-2007, UG-004-2007)


According to the information received, Rizana Nafeek has to file her appeal against the death sentence before July 16, 2007. However, the Sri Lankan embassy in Saudi Arabia (SA) has not been given the judgment and other documents relating to the case, which are necessary for the filing of the appeal. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government in Colombo has not approved the payment of legal costs which, according to a communiqué issued by the embassy is Saudi Riyals (SAR) 150,000 (US$ 40,000). (For details, kindly see the Embassy’s Media Release dated July 8, 2007) 

Meanwhile, the father of Rizana Nafeek has appealed to the father of the deceased baby seeking for a pardon. (For details, kindly see an English translation of the appeal)


A Special Appeal Under extraordinary circumstances

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is making this special appeal, choosing a mode of appeal which is exceptional as compared to our usual appeals due to the extraordinary circumstances of this case.

This case concerns Rizana Nafeek who is facing the death sentence in Saudi Arabia, allegedly for the strangulation of a four month old baby. Through close study of the case the AHRC is satisfied that, in fact, what has taken place was the tragic death of a baby in the process of being fed by an inexperienced teenager.

Rizana Nafeek was born on February 4, 1988 and comes from a war-torn, impoverished village. Here, many families, including those of the Muslim community try to send their under aged children for employment outside the country, as their breadwinners. Some employment agencies exploit the situation of the impoverished families to recruit under aged girls for employment. For that purpose they engage in obtaining passports by altering the dates of birth of these children to make it appear that they are older than they really are. In the case of Rizana Nafeek, the altered date, which is to be found in her passport now, is February 2, 1982. It was on the basis of this altered date that the employment agency fixed her employment in Saudi Arabia and she went there in May 2005.

She went to work at the house of Mr. Naif Jiziyan Khalaf Al Otaibi whose wife had a new-born baby boy. A short time after she started working for this family she was assigned to bottle feed the infant who was by then four months old. Rizana Nafeek had no experience of any sort in caring for such a young infant. She was left alone when bottle feeding the child. While she was feeding the child the boy started choking, as so often happens to babies and Rizana Nafeek panicked and while shouting for help tried to sooth the child by feeling the chest, neck and face, doing whatever she could to help him. At her shouting the mother arrived but by that time the baby was either unconscious or dead. Unfortunately, misunderstanding the situation the family members treated the teenager very harshly and handed her over to the police, accusing her of strangling the baby. At the police station also, she was very harshly handled and did not have the help of a translator or anyone else to whom she could explain what had happened. She was made to sign a confession and later charges were filed in court of murder by strangulation.

On her first appearance in court she was sternly warned by the police to repeat her confession, which she did. However, later she was able to talk to an interpreter who was sent by the Sri Lankan embassy and she explained in her own language the circumstances of what had happened as stated above. This version was also stated in court thereafter.

According to reports, the judges who heard the case requested the father of the child to use his prerogative to pardon the young girl. However, the father refused to grant such pardon. On that basis the court sentenced her to death by beheading. This sentence was made on June 16, 2007.

There is a period of one month for the lodging of an appeal. However, an appeal has not yet been lodged. The initiative for lodging the appeal is with the Sri Lankan government. The AHRC also understands that the Sri Lankan embassy in Saudi Arabia has sought the help of a legal firm which had initially demanded the equivalent of Saudi Riyals (SAR) 250,000 (US$ 66,666) which the embassy has now been able to reduce after negotiation to SAR 150,000 (US$ 40,000), according to a communiqué issued by the embassy on July 8. However, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry in Colombo has not authorised the payment of any money in legal fees.

However, under Saudi Arabian law it is the prerogative of the family of the victim, in this case the parents of the baby that has the right to pardon the teenaged, Rizana Nafeek. Such pardon will be valid in law under the Saudi Arabian legal system.

The AHRC is of the view that was has happened is a tragedy and not a crime. At no stage was any allegation made of any animosity between the teenaged helper and the family. If such animosity existed it is very unlikely that a four month old infant would have been handed over to her care. The inexperience of the helper, as well as the difficulties of communication due to the language problems have ended up in an extremely unfortunate situation being misunderstood as a crime. If the nature of this tragedy is not dealt with within a matter of days from now there will be a further tragedy of a teenaged, inexperienced helper being given capital punishment for a crime she did not commit or intend to commit.

Under these circumstances the AHRC is of the view that there is justification to appeal for compassionate understanding, mercy and pardon from the head of the family, who has lost their baby. In taking this approach we do not wish to blame or to harass this unfortunate family which has already faced the tragedy. Our sole approach is, to very respectfully, appeal to their compassionate understanding.

As we do not wish to harass the family in any way we propose that all appeals to the family should be made through the Sri Lankan Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We do not wish to write directly to the family or to bombard them with letters. Instead our request is for concerned persons to write to the contact address of the Sri Lankan Embassy which we believe will hand over the letters to the family. We give below a draft letter which we encourage all concerned persons throughout the world to send through the contact address provided. If anyone wishes change the language of the appeal we urge that in every possible way understanding of the sufferings of this family should be shown and the family should be treated with the utmost respect.

(Writing of letters in Arabic is also encouraged)

The AHRC encourages everyone to write similar letters through the Sri Lankan embassy in Saudi Arabia.

To support this appeal, please click here:

Suggested letter:

Mr. Naif Jiziyan Khalaf Al Otaibi
Ministry of Finance, Riyadh
C/O Sri Lankan Embassy
P.O. Box 94360
Riyadh 19693
Saudi Arabia

Email: lankaemb@shabakah.net.sa

Request a Pardon for Rizana Nafeek

Dear Mr. Otaibi,

May the peace of God be upon you during this time of grief in your family. I wish to express my heartfelt condolences to you and your wife over the loss of your child.

The loss of any life is a tragedy, and it is in this spirit that I share with you my concerns for the life of the teenage girl Rizana Nafeek.

Rizana Nafeek comes from an extremely poor family in the war-torn eastern part of Sri Lanka where many people, including the Muslim community, are facing grave economic and other daily hardships. Due to this, many underage young people are sent to other countries for employment in order to feed their impoverished families.

Rizana Nafeek was born on February 4, 1988. The individuals who recruited her for employment in your country altered her date of birth to February 2, 1982, and obtained a passport for her to travel to Saudi Arabia. At the time of her employment in your household, she was therefore still a teenager without any experience of looking after a baby. My understanding is that her inexperience resulted in the accidental death of your child and that this was not an intentional act to harm your family.

I am therefore writing this letter to appeal to your compassion to pardon and forgive the teenage girl Rizana Nafeek who is now facing a death sentence. It is to your compassion and understanding that I appeal in the hope that you will find it in your heart to forgive this unfortunate girl.

Yours sincerely,


Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrchk.org)

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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.