Will Anyone Remember Rizana In Sri Lanka or Saudi Arabia by Next Year?



Rizana Nafeek’s tragedy is that she was a Muslim and a poor Sri Lankan. As a result, she gets little sympathy from either her fellow Muslims or from non-Muslim fellow countrymen.

This becomes quite clear when you read comments published after her death by beheading in Saudi Arabia recently. Many Muslims held the view that they could not question Islamic Sharia law. Comments from non-Muslims, while expressing (in some cases) a degree of sympathy, were focused mainly on issues such as poverty as the real reason for this miscarriage of justice, a convenient excuse.

There are two concerns here; legal and humanitarian. Kumbhakarna has no criticism of Sharia law. While he doesn’t care to live in a country ruled by that legal system (not any more than he cares to live in any country where the law is dictated by totalitarian dogma) he feels that this is a matter for the Muslims to decide. Any legal system needs to be updated if it’s to work satisfactorily in modern societies. But that is up to Saudi Arabia..

But it’s practice, not theory, that matters. It’s pointless having the most modern legal system in the world if trials are unfair. In Rizana Nafeek’s case, the issue isn’t whether Sharia law is just, or acceptable in a modern, democratic sense, but whether she received a fair trial and competent legal representation in Saudi Arabia. Kumbhakarna firmly holds the view that she did not. If she did, the chances are she’d be alive today, and the blame for this tragic failure lies with our pious government as much as it does with the Saudis.

More than anything, the beheading of this poverty-stricken young woman shows the complacency of our ruling class (including Muslim politicians, not forgetting that the Minister of Justice is a Muslim; but he’s too busy with anti-democratic detention laws to bother about destitute housemaids) when it comes to the fate of common people, and the double standards now institutionalized in the deep-rooted culture of migration to the Middle East for jobs.

While the government depends (as much as it does on tea, coconut, rubber and garments) on this migratory labour for its own survival, it fails to address the root cause of this migration –poverty – which causes hundreds of people to be abused by their masters each year, resulting in broken homes, hearts and bodies). But to blame Rizana’s tragedy on poverty is to conveniently ignore its root cause – the total indifference of our ruling elite as well as society as a whole to the fate of this abysmally poor, barely literate young girl from Mutur, one of the remotest regions of the country.

Kumbhakarna doesn’t blame the government alone. True, it has funds to provide its faithful with an obscene number of luxury vehicles and other facilities while our embassies abroad are chronically short of everything. It can re-write the laws when it needs to defend its own. This is criminal negligence. It failed to get Rizana a proper translator both during police investigations and at the trial. Legal representation for her was incompetent. But, while we can blame the government for all that, what was Sri Lankan society doing during the seven long years when the accused languished in jail? To say that Muslims should have done fund raising is to put the whole thing on a sectarian footing. The truth is that all Sri Lankans should have done that, as well as putting public pressure on the government, because the girl was a Sri Lankan first. But this simply didn’t happen.

She didn’t get fair legal representation as a result. She was beaten and threatened with torture by the Saudi police and forced into signing an admission of guilt. In this regard, we can’t hold ourselves superior to Saudi police methods because this happens routinely in Sri Lanka and the new draconian detention laws poised to be passed will only make our already sorry human rights record worse.

Rizana was seventeen when she went to Saudi Arabia and was accused of murdering an infant. This legal point, that she was a minor when the alleged crime was committed, was never effectively seized upon by the defense. The government now says it will raise the age limit for migratory workers, which will only raise the level of corruption involved. One reader commenting after her execution took the easy way out by saying ‘no one knows what really happened’ (vis. a vis. the alleged murder).

Kumbhakarna readily takes the view that Rizana was innocent, and the infant choked to death due to a mistake. It could be negligence. But it wasn’t murder. Her behaviour in prison bears this out. The woman doctor who visited her regularly states that she was collecting soap and cream to bring home to her siblings once she was freed.

Rizana could be described in a number of ways – underprivileged, poor from birth, ‘backward,’ unsophisticated, rural – whatever the correct description is, we can safely assume that she was deeply religious as the majority of our villagers are, whatever their religion. She would have feared, indeed even accepted, punishment from her God if she was guilty. But her continued hope in eventual freedom amply reveals her innocence.

It must have been doubly horrifying, therefore, to learn at the last minute of her gruesome fate (One of our all-knowing ministers actually said in parliament, two hours after her execution, that she had been pardoned). Now we come to the method of execution. Some are horrified by the beheading. Kumbhakarna does not like to watch grisly videos (which is why he refused to watch the even grislier beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl by Islamic extremists in Pakistan) but this he watched because of the urge to write about it.

The execution seems to have been carried out in a public place. Prison executions are carried out in near total seclusion and silence as to provide the maximum privacy possible for the victim. In this case, the kneeling girl could hear voices, and footsteps of policemen moving around her. Life was going on. Then the white-clad executioner stepped forward and decapitated her with a swift, one handed stroke.

While this looks totally barbaric, Kumbhakarna does not wish to argue to that one method of execution is better than another. It doesn’t matter if the guillotine is more ‘efficient’ than the Saudi sword (the Saudis will undoubtedly argue otherwise). It’s pointless arguing whether lethal injection, electric chair or the noose represent civilization and industrial efficiency far better than the sword, being hurled down a cliff or getting stoned to death. In the final analysis, all methods of execution are barbaric, and this should be a case for a strong plea against the death penalty.

A member of the Saudi royal family has offered Rupees one million to Rizana’s family. The question isn’t whether this is enough or not; what’s being done to help the family locally? In the meantimeRizana Nafeeq may not even have a grave in the desert. Will anyone remember her, here or there, by next year?COURTESY:DAILY MIRROR