Sri Lankan Under 18 at Time of Alleged Killing
July 31, 2007
This case raises many troubling questions about the treatment of children and foreigners in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system.
Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch

(New York) - The Saudi Court of Appeals should recognize that a foreign worker on death row was a child at the time of her alleged crime, when a baby died in her care, Human Rights Watch said today. The court should also review the fairness of the original investigation into Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan domestic worker, and her trial.

Last month, a Shari’a court in Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia, sentenced to death Nafeek, 19, ruling that she had murdered an infant in her care in 2005. Nafeek filed an appeal last week. International law prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18.

“This case raises many troubling questions about the treatment of children and foreigners in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch urged the appeals court to consider evidence verifying Nafeek’s age was 17 at the time of the incident, review her access to lawyers and translators during the interrogation and trial, and examine the conditions under which she made a confession.

Nafeek had been employed in Saudi Arabia for two weeks as a domestic worker when her employers’ 4-month-old baby died while entrusted to her care. Human Rights Watch has obtained a copy of Nafeek’s birth certificate, which shows her year of birth as 1988, although her passport lists it as 1982. Human Rights Watch’s research in Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka in late 2006 found that migrant workers are often unfamiliar with immigration regulations, and labor recruiters routinely falsify workers’ passports in order to meet age requirements for jobs abroad.

Saudi Arabia is a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which expressly prohibits the death penalty or life sentences without parole for offenses committed before the accused turned 18. Nevertheless, Saudi law gives judges wide discretion to treat children as adults in criminal cases, and courts have imposed death sentences on children as young as 13. Individuals charged with a capital offense rarely have access to lawyers during interrogation and trial, and often do not even receive a copy of the verdict.

“By imposing the death sentence on Nafeek, who was 17 when the baby in her care died, Saudi Arabia flouts clear and specific human rights obligations,” said Varia.

Human Rights Watch also urged the government of Sri Lanka to provide stronger protections to its workers abroad. There are approximately 8 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, including 400,000 to 500,000 workers from Sri Lanka. Those facing criminal charges often have poor access to translators, legal assistance, and information about their cases. Nafeek, first arrested in 2005, did not have access to legal counsel until after the court sentenced her to death in 2007.

Sri Lankan embassies have begun to provide support services for migrant workers who have either faced workplace abuse or been accused of crimes, but these remain grossly inadequate compared to the demand. The Sri Lankan government should ensure provision of timely legal aid to its nationals facing criminal complaints, and legal aid, shelter and other assistance to nationals who have suffered abuse. The government of Saudi Arabia should provide legal assistance free of charge to criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty and its finality. Given the possibility of mistakes in any criminal justice system, innocent persons may be executed. In 2007, Saudi Arabia has executed more than 100 persons.

For additional Human Rights Watch reporting on Saudi Arabia or migrant domestic workers, please visit:
• On Saudi Arabia: http://www.hrw.org/doc?t=mideast&c=saudia
• On migrant domestic workers: http://hrw.org/campaigns/women/2006/domestic_workers/index.htm