The government of Sri Lanka has recalled its ambassador to Saudi Arabia to protest the execution of a Sri Lankan woman domestic worker convicted of murdering a baby under her care.
The recall of ambassador Ahmed Jawad will be effective immediately, although the Sri Lankan mission in the capital city of Riyadh will continue.
On Wednesday, Rizana Nafeek, 24, who had been in a prison in Saudi Arabia for the past seven years, was beheaded by a sword near Riyadh, despite repeated appeals for clemency by the Colombo government and human rights activists worldwide.
"In executing Rizana Nafeek, Saudi authorities demonstrated callous disregard for basic humanity as well as Saudi Arabia's international legal obligations," senior women's rights researcher of Human Rights Watch, Nisha Varia, said in a statement.
Among other issues, critics of the execution cite that Rizana was only 17 (a minor) at the time of the crime; she was reportedly coerced into confession by Saudi authorities; it was not clear if she even understood the charges filed against her due to language barriers; and she apparently did not receive adequate legal representation.
But the Saudi interior ministry claimed that Rizana smothered the baby to death after she engaged in an argument with the child’s parents. Rizana herself reportedly alleged the baby died while choking on a bottle of milk.
Meanwhile, the execution has sent shockwaves across the small island nation in the Indian Ocean.
The Colombo Gazette newspaper reported that the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka said the Saudi parents of the dead infant should have pardoned Rizana, in accordance with Islamic laws and custom.
“Whilst the Holy Quran provides for the implementation of the death penalty for murder, treating murder as an offense against the entire community, the circumstances of the infant’s death clearly do not amount to murder under well known principles of Islamic Shariah,” the Council said.
The Asian Human Rights Commission, which has long campaigned for Rizana’s freedom, released a statement that largely blamed her death on the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
“If proper diplomatic effort was made with the required seriousness, the life of this young girl could have been saved,” AHRC stated.
“Rizana Nafeek is also a symbol. A symbol of the vast section of the Sri Lankan people who belong to the least advantaged sections of society. The symbolism that her situation demonstrates is that the government machinery as we have now is completely careless, insensitive and irresponsible when dealing with this segment of our society. Her tragedy is an illustration of the tragedy of all the people who are in her condition.”
The European Union also condemned the Saudis for the execution.
“I am deeply dismayed… that Sri Lankan national Ms. Rizana Nafeek was executed,'' said EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton in a statement.
“On numerous occasions, the EU had called for the execution to be commuted and had asked the authorities to exercise all their powers in order to grant her relief from the death penalty.”
Ashton added: “I recognize the serious nature of the crime involved and express my sincere sympathy to the family of the victim. However, I do not believe that their loss has been mitigated by Nafeek's death. The EU opposes the use of capital punishment in all cases and under all circumstances and calls for a global moratorium as a first step towards its universal abolition. Capital punishment represents an irreversible loss of human life.’’
HRW estimated that the Saudis executed at least 69 people last year.
Separately, the Saudis have denied requests by the Sri Lankan government and Rizana's family to bring the body back to her native country for burial.
According to Saudi officials, the corpse of a convicted murder cannot be flown out of the country. The Colombo Page newspaper reported that the Saudis have already buried Rizana's body in a prison cemetery.
Abdul Jihad, a friend of the Nafeek family in the Sri Lankan village of Muttur, told Agence France Presse: "The family is completely heartbroken. They want Rizana's body brought back, although we have been told that they have already buried her. The villagers will pray for her tomorrow after the Friday prayers.”
Jihad added: "[Rizana’s] mother is still in shock and her father is very ill and will be hospitalized soon.”
Some politicians in Sri Lankan are now calling for a prohibition on sending young women in the country to work in Saudi Arabia.
The Sunday Times newspaper of Sri Lanka estimates that about 1.8 million Sri Lankans currently work abroad -- almost half of whom (45 percent) are women.
However, an opposition MP in Sri Lanka, Ranjan Ramanayake, said the Colombo government has little incentive to pull its domestic workers out of Saudi Arabia since they generate significant amount of income for the country – which he estimates at $6 billion income annually.
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