Saudi Arabia defied international protests Wednesday by beheading a Sri Lankan maid convicted of smothering an infant child, despite her being aged just 17 at the time of the offence.
A sword-wielding executioner carried out the death sentence on Rizana Nafeek in Dawadmy, near Riyadh, just hours after the Saudi Interior Ministry ratified the court verdict against her.
Nafeek was sentenced to death in 2007 for smothering the four-month-old boy while working as his nanny. She had been accused of killing the baby two years earlier after an argument with his mother. Nafeek said the child had choked to death on milk during a bottle feed.
The Sri Lankan government appealed the death penalty, but the Saudi Supreme Court upheld it in 2010. Despite an international campaign for clemency, that verdict was ratified by the interior ministry.
The announcement the execution had taken place shocked Nafeek’s supporters who had expected Sri Lanka to enter into negotiations to pay blood money for clemency.
A global campaign to save the maid had been led by a British charity, Safer World for Women. Nafeek’s supporters claimed her execution was a breach of child rights.
“Saudi Arabia knew Rizana Nafeek was a child [but] they beheaded her anyway,” said Joanne Michele, a researcher with the group. “Rizana Nafeek had no access to lawyers either during her pre-trial interrogation or during her first trial.”
Nafeek was found guilty of smothering the infant after signing a confession written in Arabic that she did not understand and later retracted.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president, condemned the execution as the country’s parliament in Colombo observed a minute’s silence for Nafeek. The government was still assembling the members of a diplomatic delegation to Riyadh to plead her case when the sentence was carried out.
“President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a personal appeal on two occasions immediately after the confirmation of the death sentence, and a few days ago to stop the execution and grant a pardon to Miss Rizana Nafeek,” the Sri Lankan government said.
“All Sri Lankans should regard today as a day of shame,” the Asia Human Rights Commission said. “There is no doubt that the charge of murder against Rizana is wrong. The laws in Saudi Arabia fall short of universally accepted norms concerning investigations of crimes.”
Saudi Arabia beheaded as many as 76 people last year under its strict code of Islamic law. Cases of abuse, torture and imprisonment of domestic servants has led some countries to restrict recruitment of maids by Saudi Arabian agencies.