Thu, Jul 26, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lanka gripped by possible death of teenage maid


Rizana Nafeek, who left Sri Lanka as a teenager to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia, could be decapitated before she turns 20.

Saving her from beheading has become one of the most urgent issues in a country where nearly everyone has worked abroad or had a relative employed overseas.

Nafeek went to Saudi Arabia two years ago to work as a maid but was given the additional duty of looking after a baby boy, which she was not trained to do. The Sri Lankan embassy says the infant died on May 22, 2005, while she was bottle-feeding him.

Nafeek, who was without legal representation at trial, allegedly confessed to her guilt in the child's death, according to the embassy, but then recanted, saying her confession was obtained under duress. Human rights groups say the boy's death appeared to be an accident.

The government has sent a delegation including Nafeek's parents and the deputy foreign minister to Saudi Arabia to plead for her life. Activists say the case underscores the vulnerability of Sri Lankans willing to work overseas.

Ranjan Ramanayake, a popular film actor and activist who is a vocal campaigner for the welfare of Sri Lankan migrant workers, accused the government of doing too little to help workers when they get into trouble abroad.

"This is really pathetic. The attention paid to this crucial issue is very poor," Ramanayake said.

However, Keheliya Rambukwella, minister of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare, said his ministry gives seminars for citizens heading overseas, teaching them about their host country's laws, culture and behavior. The government also takes prompt action to ensure the safety and welfare of Sri Lankan expatriates, he said.

But when they get in trouble, "the law of the land will apply," he said.

About 1.5 million Sri Lankans work abroad, nearly 400,000 of them in Saudi Arabia alone. Together, they earn US$2.5 billion, putting them in a virtual tie with the garment industry as the island nation's largest source of foreign currency.

Working as maids or drivers, Sri Lankan workers can earn three or four times their local salaries, and they often send the bulk of their incomes back home.

The death sentence and other incidents have not however de-terred Sri Lankans from seeking work in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations, said Suraj Dandeniya, who heads the organization that represents Sri Lankan companies recruiting foreign workers.

Poverty forces many to take the jobs, he said, adding, "most of those going to these countries are less-educated, and they find it difficult to obtain well-paid jobs in Sri Lanka."

In Nafeek's case, Sri Lanka filed an appeal. Only a court ruling or a pardon from the child's parents could spare her.

"Her parents were taken to the prison. But even officials were not allowed to go and see the girl. That's their law. So how do you fight against the law?" Rambukwella said.

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