11 January 2013 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UN independent experts and the world body’s human rights office today voiced their dismay over the execution of a young Sri Lankan domestic worker, Rizana Nafeek, in Saudi Arabia earlier this week.
“We are deeply troubled by reports of irregularities in her detention and trial, including that no lawyer was present to assist her in key stages of her interrogation and trial, that language interpretation was poor, and Ms. Nafeek’s contention that she was physically assaulted and forced to sign a confession under duress,” Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), told a news briefing in Geneva.
Ms. Nafeek, who arrived in Saudi Arabia from Sri Lanka to work as a housemaid in 2005, was charged with the murder of her employers’ baby a week after her arrival. She was executed on Wednesday.
“Despite a birth certificate that allegedly showed she was a minor at the time of the baby’s death and repeated expressions of concern from the international community, she was convicted of murder, sentenced to death and beheaded,” Mr. Colville noted.
“The Secretary-General is dismayed by the execution,” Mr. Ban’s spokesperson said in a note to the media. “He is concerned about reports of irregularities in her detention and trial, as well as the increase in the use of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia.”
In November 2010, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, sent an urgent appeal in connection with Ms. Nafeek’s case. In June 2007, his predecessor, Philip Alston, had raised concerns about the imposition of the death penalty for an alleged crime committed when Ms. Nafeek was still below eighteen years of age.
Independent experts, or special rapporteurs such as Mr. Heyns and Mr. Alston, are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.
Also today, Mr. Heyns was joined by two fellow Special Rapporteurs – dealing with torture and migrants – in expressing outrage over the execution of Ms. Nafeek.
“International law, accepted as binding by Saudi Arabia, is clear that it is unlawful to execute someone who was under 18 years old when they allegedly committed a crime – moreover, beheading is a particularly cruel form of execution,” said Mr. Heyns.
“It appears that Ms. Nafeek did not have adequate access to lawyers and competent interpreters during her interrogation or trial,” the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau. “Given the large number of women migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia it is of paramount importance that transparent laws are put in place to ensure that all procedural rights and guarantees are afforded to all persons in Saudi Arabia, no matter their migration status or nationality.”
The Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, noted that during the appeal of the case, the defence submitted that Ms. Nafeek was beaten and made to sign a confession under duress. “Her execution is clearly contrary to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture,” he said.
Mr. Ban’s spokesperson noted that the Secretary-General insists on the application of international human rights law, including the right to a fair trial, for all men and women in Saudi Arabia, irrespectively of their migration status or nationality.
“Currently, in Saudi Arabia, women do not have equal access to the courts or an equal opportunity to obtain justice,” the spokesperson added in his note to the media. “The Secretary-General is concerned that this is a situation which is even more precarious for women migrant workers given their foreign status.”
In his remarks at the Geneva news briefing, Mr. Colville also said that OHCHR had noted with “great concern” the sharp increase in the use of capital punishment in Saudi Arabia since 2011.
“We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to join the growing world’s movement away from the death penalty,” Mr. Colville said.
The OHCHR spokesperson also noted that the High Commissioner – Navi Pillay – strongly supports the global movement away from the death penalty, and was pleased that a clear majority of UN Member States had recently voted for a General Assembly resolution which calls for a moratorium on the death penalty.
In late December last year, the Assembly adopted the non-binding resolution by a recorded vote of 111 in favour to 41 against, with 34 abstentions. In it, the Assembly expressed its deep concern about the application of the death penalty, and called on States to respect international standards providing safeguards guaranteeing the protection of the rights of persons facing the death penalty.
States were called on to not impose capital punishment for offences committed by persons below 18 years of age and pregnant women, as well as urged to reduce the number of offences for which the death penalty might be imposed and establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.
News Tracker: past stories on this issue