Tuesday 23 November 2010

Eid Mubarak: Welcome to Death Penalty Season

Eid al-Adha: to Muslims all over the world, today's 'Festival of Sacrifice' marks the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Isma'il (Ishmael) in an act of divine servitude.
As part of the celebrations women and men will dress in their very best, decorations will sparkle throughout the streets, excessive amounts of meat will be served, folks will wish one another Eid Mubarak ("blessed festival") and the poor will be fed.
But to the less fortunate in Saudi Arabia, Eid al-Adha means something entirely different: the beginning of death penalty season.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest executions rates in the world, with an average of one to two people killed every week, usually by beheading in a public square. The majority of those killed are foreign workers, and since 1990 the kingdom has put 40 women to death, 22 of them female foreign workers.
But for a period of over two months between Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and today's Eid al-Adha, the annual Hajj pilgrimage is performed by millions of Muslims all over the world. Out of respect for this holy period, and the tourism and money it brings into the country, Saudi Arabia tends to graciously delay the head chopping until after Eid al-Adha.
Meaning that while Eid al-Adha is a joyous day for mainstream Saudis, not everyone, particularly the millions of foreign workers in the country who serve the Saudis, are so happy.
Anti-death penalty activism this year has focused on the case of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid on death row for the alleged killing of an infant she was taking care of.
The eldest daughter of a Sri Lankan woodcutter, Rizana arrived in Saudi Arabia on May 4, 2005 at the age of 17, becoming one of 500,000 Sri Lankans in the Saudi kingdom. She was employed by the Al-Otaibi family in Dawadami, 240 miles (390 km) west of the Saudi capital Riyadh. Charged with housekeeping, Rizana was also asked to take care of the family's four-month old infant son, a task she had no training in.
18 days after her arrival in the country, Rizana claims the baby choked while being bottle fed, leading Rizana to panic and call for help in what became a tragic accident. Rizana's employers claim she murdered the baby.
Rizana claims she was then tortured by police into confessing to a crime she did not commit. She was not provided with any legal representation during the interrogation, nor an official Tamil translator. She also had no legal representation during her first trial, as it is not required in Saudi's legal system.
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Saudi Arabia ratified in 1996, it is against international law to execute someone who was a minor at the time of an alleged crime. However, while according to her birth certificate Rizana was 17 at the time of her trial, her passport showed a different birthdate, enabling her recruitment agency to pretend she was 23 and eligible to work in Saudi Arabia but meaning she was tried by the court system as an adult. The courts refused to allow her birth certificate as evidence.
In 2007 a three judge panel at the Dawadami High Court, which like all courts in Saudi Arabia rules according to a strict interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, sentenced Rizana to death by beheading. This September she lost her Supreme Court appeal and is expected to be executed when? You guessed it: after Eid.
Activists in Saudi Arabia and abroad have been in fifth gear trying to save Rizana from the death penalty for months. Safe World for Women has taken the lead on Change.org, gathering some 1,500 signaturescalling on Saudi, Sri Lankan and UN officials to intervene in her case.
The pressure seems to be working. After activists raised the heat, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa publicly asked Saudi King Abdullah to grant Rizana clemency and we had a minor victory over the weekend: Saudi King Abdullah ordered officials to 'discuss' the matter with the deceased baby's parents, essentially delaying the execution for now.
'Discuss' the matter is code for negotiations over 'blood money', a euphemism for a financial settlement made with a victim's family, and Saudi officials made sure they publicly pointed out that the matter could be solved if the parents were to accept a 'blood money' settlement.
Activists must keep the pressure on. Negotiations over blood money are not the same thing as clemency, and could be a delaying tactic to ride out the interest of international activists and media in the case.

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