As Saudia Arabia beheads a Sri Lankan maid, for how much longer are Asians going to let these human rights abuses continue?
Raj Persaud FRCPsych Consultant Psychiatrist
Last week Saudi Arabian authorities beheaded a Sri Lankan maid, Rizana Nafeek, convicted of smothering an infant child. She was aged just 17 at the time of the offence. Accused of killing the four-month-old boy, Nafeek and supporters insisted the child had choked to death on milk during a bottle feed. The maid appears to have had no access to lawyers, either during her pre-trial interrogation, or her first trial, plus she signed a confession written in Arabic, that she apparently didn’t understand and later retracted.
Human Rights Watch has produced a report entitled ‘Bad Dreams – Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia’ – a comprehensive examination of the variety of human rights abuses that foreign workers experience in Saudi Arabia. The report’s authors declare that some of the most frightening and troubling findings concern mistreatment of women migrant workers.
The report explains that the Kingdom has one of largest expatriate communities made up of Asians anywhere in the world. Saudi Arabia includes one million to 1.5 million people each from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The Kingdom is the number one destination for migrants from Bangladesh remitting, according to some estimates, approaching $2 billion US annually back to Bangladesh.
The report details how many of the Bangladeshi in the kingdom being illiterate are exploited through exorbitant fees consisting of thousands of US dollars to manpower recruiting agencies to obtain employment visas. Indian workers abroad send billions home in remittances each year and the largest Indian expatriate community in the world is in Saudi Arabia with 3.5 million Indians employed in the Gulf states.
Human Rights Watch found many Asian women workers traumatised from rape and sexual abuse at the hands of Saudi male employers. They are kept prisoners in workshops and private homes, living in forced confinement and extreme isolation – making it impossible to call for help, escape, or seek legal amends.
The report documents migrants who were executed following unfair trials that lacked any transparency or due process. In many cases condemned men did not know they had been sentenced to death and their embassies were only informed after the fact. No advance information, for example, is given to Indian diplomats before beheading of Indians.
Bodies following execution are not returned to the families and no official information is provided about the location in Saudi Arabia of the remains. Embassy officials are routinely not been notified of the arrests of their nationals. Criminal suspects are not informed of their rights under the law.
Virginia Sherry, the lead author of the Human Rights Watch report, documents that interrogators from the ministry of interior torture suspects with impunity, during prolonged incommunicado detention, in the quest for confessions, whose reliability is questionable at best. Migrant workers told Human Rights Watch of how they were forced to sign confessions that they couldn’t read, under the threat of additional torture.
One Indian migrant worker told Human Rights Watch about a Saudi judge who repeatedly called him a liar during his trial. A worker from the Philippines, who was imprisoned for five years before he was brought before a court for the first time, described in the report, how a judge sentenced him to 350 lashes, because his interrogators had extracted a false confession.
In the report entitled ‘Saudi Arabia: Bad Dreams’, it is reported that the judge justified this corporal punishment because the coerced confession, obtained under threats and torture was untrue. Interviews with women migrants in the women’s prison in Riyadh indicated that most of them had not been informed of their rights, had no understanding of the legal basis for their arrest or the status of their cases, and had no access to lawyers or other forms of legal assistance.
A beheading grabs headlines around the world but the reality of daily life for millions of Asians in Saudi Arabia appears one of unfair brutal exploitation, which the UK, Indian, Pakistan and Bangladesh Governments turn a blind eye to because it’s expedient given all the money which flows back to each country from the Kingdom.
It’s time the Indian Government and others stood up to this regime that is systematically abusing Asians. Given the large numbers of Asians in the Gulf and their discriminatory treatment reminds us of how Gandhi learnt non-violent protest and political strategy while defending South African Indians against the South African apartheid regime. Ill treatment of South Asians extend beyond Saudi Arabia in the middle-east. Blame attaches to South Asian Governments for turning a blind eye.
Immediate requirements are for a better surveillance and management of the whole immigration process by South Asian governments to the middle-east and a coordinated representation by these countries to the Saudi and other relevant middle-eastern authorities, that such human rights abuses be stopped and to demand that every Asian citizen arrested for any crime be allowed immediate access to a member of his local embassy, thereby ensuring better legal protection.
Raj Persaud FRCPsych is a Consultant Psychiatrist in Private Practice in Harley Street