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RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: Migrants Deaf to Death Penalty Warnings

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Oct 21 2008 (IPS) - Foreign workers and their families continue to turn a blind eye to the risk of execution in the Middle East, particularly to the dangers of going to Saudi Arabia with its ‘macabre’ death penalty system.

“They still go – either knowing the stiff laws in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East or being totally unaware,” David Soysa, director of the Migrant Workers Centre in Colombo, told IPS.

“There is the ‘it won’t happen to me’ mentality,” Nimalka Fernando, a human rights activist, added.

On Oct. 14, Amnesty International issued its latest warning on Saudi Arabia where “poor foreign workers are literally paying with their lives when accused of capital crimes”.

“The death penalty is not only applied unfairly and in a secretive manner, it is discriminatory and used against those who are least able to access their rights. It is little more than a macabre lottery whose consequences, for many, are lethal,” Amnesty said.

Three days earlier, three Sri Lankans were sentenced by a Saudi court to public execution for allegedly killing a Yemeni national. Eight others, including two Sri Lankan women allegedly working for the Yemeni as prostitutes, were also sentenced to jail terms and floggings for being linked to the same crime.

All have the right of appeal – if they can raise the tens of thousands of dollars needed to hire a local law firm to take on their cases.

The average rate of executions in Saudi Arabia is currently two a week. Last year, Saudi Arabia executed more than 143 people, a highly disproportionate number of whom were foreigners.

On Oct. 6, the Human Rights Commission of Asia reported again on the three-year trauma of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan housemaid sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia after the infant she was feeding tragically choked and died before help arrived.

Nafeek was employed as a domestic worker and had travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2005 on a passport that showed she was not a minor, although she actually was only 17. Foreign domestic workers must be over 22 to be legally employed in Saudi Arabia.

A Saudi judicial tribunal will hear Nafeek’s case on Nov 5 in an attempt to get the mother and father to save her from execution by the sword. Under Sharia-based law, they can pardon her.

Pardons for foreign workers in Saudi Arabia are rare, one for every 30 executions. Saudi citizens are eight times more likely to get one, according to Amnesty.

HRCA reported that Nafeek had no legal representation at her murder trial. A confession was used to secure her conviction. But this was given under duress and later retracted.

The confession may have been authenticated by a translator without sufficient knowledge of the Tamil language.

It was only after HRCA mounted an international campaign last year to raise 40,000 dollars needed to lodge an appeal through a Saudi lawyer that Nafeek was given a temporary stay of execution.

Despite 100,000 local people signing a petition for Nafeek to be spared, girls were still falsifying their ages to leave the country to work exactly as Nafeek had done, activists report.

Many of these underage female workers were from Nafeek’s own hometown of Mutur, eastern Trincomalee, a Catholic nun told IPS.

“They probably know of Nafeek’s plight but still their parents send them due to extreme poverty,’’ the nun said. “Agents from Colombo and in the receiving country are part of this racket.”

The girls are often passed to these agents by sub-agents working in the villages. “The sub-agents are mainly to blame as they pay the parents of these illegal migrants and that becomes the incentive,” Hussain Bhaila, Sri Lanka’s deputy foreign minister, told IPS.

It was difficult to detect their true age because of their traditional Muslim clothes, Suraj Dandeniya, a former president of an association representing job agents, told IPS.

“Their heads are fully covered and the officers at the passport office are reluctant to ask them to show their faces to ascertain their ages as it could be considered a sacrilege,’’ Dandeniya said. “Their birth certificates are falsified to show they are 22 when in fact they are 18 or less, which means their passports show they are five years older than they actually are.”

The Sri Lankan government is now drawing up measures to control the work of the sub-agents. Courts will scrutinise the family background of each person wanting to go abroad, an official drafting the regulations, told IPS.

This would reduce the number of young girls going abroad for work “as villagers would be aware and inform the courts”.

More than a million Sri Lankans are working in the Middle East and Asia. About 60 percent are working as domestic workers. It is estimated that between 10 and 20 percent leave the country on passports which show false ages, many of them girls under 18.

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