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August 2011.

A Tragedy of Two Families

Rizana Nafeek was born on the 4th feb 1988, to a poor Muslim family living in a war-torn, impoverished village in Sri Lanka.

Such poverty-stricken families often seek work abroad, out of desperation. Some employment agencies exploit this opportunity and encourage underage girls to alter their age on their passports.

When Rizana was 17, she went to seek work with an employment agency in Saudi Arabia. She altered her date of birth to 2nd February, 1982.


As a young migrant worker, Rizana arrived in Saudi and was set to work as a maid for Mr. Naif Jiziyan Khalaf Al Otaibi and his wife.

She had no experience in child care and Saudi labour law apparently distinguishes between the job description of a maid and that of a nanny.

However, she was given charge of the family's new-born baby.


One day, when Rizana was left alone to bottle-feed, the baby started choking.

Horrified and scared, Rizana panicked and tried to call the parents. She didn't know what to do and tragically the baby choked to death.

The baby's parents handed Rizana to police and, under interrogation, she 'confessed' to strangling the baby.

On June 16th 2007, Rizana Nafeek was sentenced to death.


Rizana's death sentence shocked the world and hit the headlines.

President Mahinda Rajapakse of Sri Lanka got involved and discussed the case with his Embassy personnel in Saudi Arabia. A minister was sent to intervene.

An appeal was filed on Rizana's behalf by human rights organisations. The Sri Lankan Embassy provided a lawyer, Kahteb Al-Shammary, whose fees were paid by the human rights organisations, and also an interpreter.

Miscarriage of Justice

Rizana retracted her confession and explained to the lawyer that she had been forced to confess under duress, following a physical assault.

Moreover, the true date of birth on Rizana's passport meant that she was only 17 when the baby's death occured, meaning that Rizana was a 'minor' under international law.

Rizana is said to have had no access to lawyers during her pre-trial interrogation or during the trial. The 'translator' appears to have had no credentials for translating between Tamil and Arabic, and is rumoured to have been a sheep-herder.


Rizana's death sentence was set aside.

The Supreme Court referred the case back to the original court at Dawadmi for further investigation.

The Translator

The original 'translator' has since left the country and witnesses called upon to verify his credentials have not turned up.

The court also called for the person who originally took down Rizana's alleged confession. It is not clear if this is the same person but it appears the court has not been able to locate him.

The Sri Lankan Embassy

From time to time over the last few years, the Sri Lankan Embassy in Saudi Arabia has made statements to the effect that the embassy was closely following the case and providing support to Rizana.

The Lawyer

Al-Shammary wrote in a letter to the Asian Human Rights Commission, “Now, this verdict will be sent to the higher authorities and the Council of Ministers for approval, or it may be reviewed by the king...

...On the other hand, we want to assure you that we are still doing our best in this case and are not sparing any effort, and this is being done in coordination with the Sri Lankan Embassy in Saudi Arabia and with many concerned Saudi officials to get the parents of the dead infant to withdraw their claim. When blood relatives agree to withdraw their claim, then her punishment will be voided.”

The King

The lawyer also pointed out in his letter that the king has the authority to repeal the punishment. “Death penalties cannot be executed unless approved by king,” the letter concluded.

A 'Reconciliation Committee' was brought in to persuade the father to 'pardon' Rizana but he declined.


On the 26th October 2010, the Arab News Agency reported that the court in Dawi Dami had confirmed Rizana's death sentence, following a 'chance' visit by a social worker who reported that Rizana was desperate to see her parents and family.

Neither the prison authorities nor the social worker informed Rizana of the final verdict and when the Sri Lankan Embassy in Saudi was contacted by an international press agency after the death sentence had been confirmed, they apparently stated that the case was still pending. It appears the Ministry of External Affairs and the officers of the Embassy in Riyadh had kept the confirmation of the death sentence quiet. Even her family had not been informed.


When the confirmation of Rizana's death sentence came to the attention of the Asian Human Rights Commission, on the 26th October, the AHRC wrote to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to urgently intervene with the Saudi authorities to gain pardon for Rizana Nafeek.

The same day, Human Rights Watch issued a statement and appeal.

On 27th October, Amnesty International followed suit.

Religious leaders came out in support.

On 31st October, Asian media reported that Prince Charles is said to be making a private appeal to King Abdallah for clemency for Rizana and has been following her case very closely.

But this time around, the western media does not seem to have awakened to Rizana's death sentence, even though she could be beheaded imminently, without further warning.

"The death of a baby is one of the most heartbreaking and tragic experiences for anyone to go through. It is easy to want to blame someone.

To have a baby die in your arms is also traumatic for anyone of any age, especially a young girl, alone and far from home, without any support. And then to be blamed. And sentenced to death. This is beyond anything imaginable.

My heart goes out to the family whose baby died and my heart cries for Rizana. I implore the baby's father and His Majesty King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud to have compassion for Rizana Nafeek. As the only two people who have the power to save her, I appeal to them to act humanely and let Rizana return home to her family, whose hearts are also bleeding for the loss of their child."

Chris Crowstaff,
Founder, Safe World for Women.