By AHRC –
From the day on which Rizana was arrested on a false charge of murder to the day of her execution, seven years elapsed. During this time, if proper diplomatic effort was made with the required seriousness, the life of this young girl could have been saved.
The following are some of the reasons for the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to get this girl released.
The absence of a proper chain of command
Under the present Executive Presidential system, there is no effective chain of command between the various layers of officers who are to carry out orders at the demand of the President. A system in which each officer in the chain of command has to take responsibility for their part in carrying out a command and reporting back has ceased to exist. The President acts in an ad hoc manner when things come to his notice, particularly by way of public protest.
Then, he makes some commands and sometimes sends out a delegation. There is no consistent follow-up to ensure that the matter is fully resolved.
In this instance, saving the life of Rizana Nafeek could have been done at the early stages if the Sri Lankan Consulate in Saudi Arabia intervened and provided her the necessary legal assistance. However, until the BBC Sinhala Service brought the case to public notice, about 10 days after the death sentence had been passed, the Sri Lankan mission in Saudi Arabia had not made any intervention. By then, a fatal and wrongfully obtained “confession”, from which there is hardly any escape within the flawed Saudi Arabian legal system, had already been used against her.
The second attempt to save her should have been to file an appeal immediately. The government refused to do that and claimed that they had a policy of non-intervention for Sri Lankan workers who are criminally charged outside the country. It was the intervention of the Asian Human Rights Commission and its supporters that made it possible to file an appeal. They raised the money for the appeal. On that basis, she was taken off of the execution list and had about five years before the execution.
During these five years, the only way of saving her life was through effective negotiation with the family of the deceased infant. The government of Sri Lanka failed to achieve this negotiation. All kinds of gestures were done; Ministers travelled up and down from time to time. However, they failed to establish direct contact with the family and to deal with the issue. If they had in fact succeeded in making contact, they could have either made arrangements to pay the blood money or otherwise obtained mercy from the family.
The establishment of this contact would have required consistent efforts on the ground, given the cultural and language problems that exist. It was only through diplomacy on the ground by diplomats based in Saudi Arabia that this could have been done. However, the nature of the foreign ministry work under the present Sri Lankan system of administration means that consistently following up and monitoring does not happen and there is no one to be held responsible for carrying out such a mission.
Whenever there was public demand for action, the Ministers made public statements, even to the parliament, stating that efforts are being made. This was done merely to appease the public discontent.
Most of the time, the ruling these days is done only by way of the state media and giving public statements. No substantive work is done at a practical level. At the heart of the system, there is no logically consistent system that links the leader with his staff.
The absence of an effective communication network between the people and the government
Rizana Nafeek’s case was a rare event, in which the entire public of Sri Lanka and millions of people in foreign countries came together in an attempt to save the life of Rizana. None of those who made efforts to save her got any kind of encouragement or a positive response from the government. The government treated the intervention by people for each other’s sake as a problem that creates political issues for itself rather than a positive development of a society that cares for each other. The government is completely negative towards the efforts of citizens to help each other. Its campaign against civil society activism and NGOs as a foreign conspiracy against itself has created mentalities within the government which stifle civic initiatives and the people’s cooperation to deal with their common problems. At the heart of the ruling philosophy is a deeply hostile attitude towards the initiatives of the people. The government’s response to the people’s intervention is to merely make public statements or to make some gesture and not to attempt to understand what the people’s concerns are and to respond to them in a genuine and serious manner.
The absence of a sense of obligation to protect the citizens and, particularly, an extremely unsympathetic approach to the least advantaged groups in society
Rizana Nafeek, as a seventeen year old girl, volunteered to help her deeply impoverished family from a remote part of Sri Lanka. She went abroad solely for this purpose. She is one of a large army of people, particularly women, who make enormous sacrifices by way of leaving their country to work in harsh circumstances in order to assist their families. The government benefits from these least advantaged persons in the country by way of earning a large portion of the foreign exchange, but they fail to take any effective measures on their behalf. The worst part of it is the extremely inadequate services provided by diplomatic missions in the workers’ time of need.
The government considers serious interventions with the governments of the receiving countries on behalf of these least advantaged persons, when required, as an obstacle in their relationship with the governments of receiving countries. An almost slave-like mentality prevails, where Sri Lankan authorities are unwilling to be embarrassed by intervening on behalf of their citizens with the foreign authorities. What is often said is that keeping the relationships is more important for the sake of earning foreign exchange, rather than to insist on the rights of their citizens when the need arises. It was this mentality which prevented an aggressive approach on the part of the Sri Lankan government regarding this young girl, who was wrongly treated throughout by the “justice” system of Saudi Arabia. In similar instances, other governments, including the Indian government, make strenuous and effortful interventions.
Neglect at the core of the system
It was a combination of factors that contributed to the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to save the life of this young girl, who was innocent and she was wronged by the country where she went for employment.
These factors arise out of the Executive Presidential system of Sri Lanka, which, by its very nature, is unable to develop and maintain an administrative machinery that is able to serve the interests of the people. Rizana Nafeek is a poor victim of this system. No amount of blaming other factors would serve any purpose that is beneficial to Sri Lankan people so long as the negligence that is a logical product of this disconnected system is addressed.
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 present move to undermine the courts in Sri Lanka by proceeding with an impeachment that has been held to be illegal by the superior courts in Sri Lanka can lead to the development of the kind of courts that have no judicial power and therefore can become like the courts of Saudi Arabia. The enormous danger involved in undermining the courts may in the future affect the rights of Sri Lankan citizens, and that is illustrated by the case of Rizana Nafeek.
Rizana Nafeek’s case is a clear illustration that the system of “justice” in Saudi Arabia is fatally flawed and does not incorporate the basic notions relating to fair trial that are universally accepted.
In this instance, there was no evidence of murder at all, but the verdict given was for murder. The infant in this case most probably died of some natural cause. As there was no post-mortem, there is no evidence as to what the cause was. According to Rizana, when she tried to bottle feed the child, the milk oozed out of his mouth.
“Asian Tribune contacted a leading Doctor in Sweden and sought clarification from him regarding milk oozing out through the nose and mouth of the infant.
The Swedish Doctor explained that there could have been a “Stop” anywhere between the oral cavity and Esophagus, (Latin – œsophagus).( Swedish -Oesophagoes)
When there is a ‘Stop’, the milk will not go into the stomach, but will ooze out. This might also be a symptom, that it may be either due congenital or existence of a tumor. Therefore it can be also assumed that when the milk the house maid bottle-fed oozed out, the child might have already passed away.
Maybe due to desperation, the mother of the child accused Rizana of foul play without any evidence. The seventeen year old girl was handed over to Saudi police, who interrogated her without an interpreter. This was accepted by the Saudi court when the appeal was taken up. The police forced her to sign a confession in a language she did not understand.
This “confession” was the sole evidence on which she was convicted. Despite the appeal court in Saudi coming to an understanding of the manner in which this confession had been obtained, they had no power to set aside the verdict according to their law.
An enormous amount of interventions were made to the Saudi authorities by millions of people throughout the world, asking to grant her pardon on the basis of the unjustness of the verdict given by a primitive legal system. The President of Sri Lanka himself sent an appeal for mercy to the King of Saudi Arabia twice. There were high level interventions, such as by the European Union and by Prince Charles from the United Kingdom. In reply to a letter sent to Queen Elizabeth, Buckingham Palace stated that, as the constitutional monarch of the country, she had referred the letter to the Prime Minister for necessary action. Despite all such interventions from individuals and organisations, no action was taken.
The sole basis for carrying out the verdict was ‘our system may be bad, but that is the system we have.’
It is hard to guess how many innocent lives of people like that of Rizana have been devoured by this system.
United Nations human rights mechanisms
Appeals were made to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and submissions were made to the Human Rights Council. We are aware that the High Commissioner’s office did their own inquiries into the matter and intervened with the Saudi authorities. However, the human rights system has not adequately intervened to deal with the absence of fair trial provisions in the Saudi Arabian system of law.
The ineffectiveness of the United Nations human rights mechanisms in dealing with such grossly unjust and inhumane systems, including the use of the death sentence even without a guarantee of fair trial, is worrying as the United Nations is the last resort that victims can turn to.
If powerful countries like Saudi Arabia are not held responsible for gross violations of human rights conducted by their legal system itself, the credibility of the United Nations could be severely undermined.