Leisure

Rizana Nafeek’s life hangs on the balance
by Laskhmi de Silva

It’s very early in the morning around eight. A queue of women and men of different age groups stand in front of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, Nawala. Some of them have come for interviews to go for employment in Korea. Others have come to pay the registration fee for employment abroad and yet others to pay insurance fees and various other matters pertaining to foreign employment.

Chathuranga from Tissamaharama had left for Colombo the previous night around 11.30, Sandamalee from Bolawatta, Wennappuwa left early morning around 4.30 and Zeenam with her husband from Beruwala left around 6.30 a.m and many more from different parts of the country to reach the SLBFE Nawala.

SLBFE is housed in a plush new building. As one enters it one is impressed by the sheer show of flashy lights, branches of banks, a Nena Sala IT centre and the reception area. On the right side is a board displaying the statistics of the number of people expected to be employed abroad in the current year – 220,800.

In the reception area is a graphic display of the units of the Bureau showing where each section is housed. There is music coming from somewhere probably to put the visitor at ease in the morning as he/she enters this wonderful place, a government body with a different look. How different?

But Rizana Nafeek who was sentenced to death in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for allegedly killing a four month old infant of her employers also had come here once about two years back to get her registration, insurance and other services with much hope for a better future. Yet today she is languishing in the death row of Riyadh awaiting some intervention like an appeal for reprieve from her hopeless fate.

"We do not see any fault of the Employment Agency that sent Rizana to KSA on a passport carrying a false age and date of birth. It is the Immigration Department that had issued her passport and we only check the passport which is a valid legal document,"H.Bopitiya General Manger SLBFE says.

Is the SLBFE unaware that a number of foreign employment agents are notorious for various illegal operations including impersonation of foreign job seekers, charging exorbitant fees from poor women or others who seek employment abroad. But this official thinks that it was the Immigration Department that had made the mistake of issuing a passport to Rizana overstating her age by 6 years when she was only 17 years old.

However it is common knowledge that forged birth certificates or other documents are procured by ruthless employment agents whose only motivating force is money, more money and money alone. Poor men or women who want a job abroad to escape the vicious circle of poverty would go to any extent, even mortgaging their only property like a small block of land or a small house to raise the money to pay the employment agents who could easily be compared to sharks.

However Bopitiya says the SLBFE is doing its maximum to get the appeal made for Rizana in her court case appeal. The Asian Human Rights Council an NGO which is supporting people like Rizana are prepared to pay the legal fees in KSA in her appeal.

Rizana was tried by a Saudi Court for allegedly killing a four month old infant of the household where she was working and she has confessed that she committed the crime. But she later retracted the confession and said it was made under duress. Rizana Nafeek was tried under Sharia Law and she has to make her appeal by tomorrow (16).

The Foreign Ministry said the Sri Lanka Embassy in Riyadh had signed an agreement with a Saudi firm of Attorneys, Kaped Fahad – Al Shamari to file the appeal in the higher Saudi Court. The legal fee is the equivalent of 4.5 million rupees approximately.

President Mahinda Rajapakse on hearing that Rizana was sent by an employment agency using a false passport directed the Minister of Foreign Employment Promotion to suspend the labour licence of the agency and institute an immediate investigation into the matter.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Hussein Bhaila who was to leave for KSA yesterday (14) with Rizana’s parents and a senior Foreign Ministry official said he was hoping to talk to religious leaders in Riyadh to ask for clemency for the girl as the laws of KSA permitted only the parents of the infant who was alleged to have been killed to pardon her.

He said he hoped the religious leaders of KSA will be able to ask for a mercy pardon.

The facts of the case are that Rizana, a poor girl from Mutur had come to the agency like thousands of others from remote villages, clueless about the world that was waiting to exploit flesh and money of the poorest of poor. The agent from Dehiwala who had sent her abroad surely knew the modus operandi of expert forgers and procurers of bogus birth certificates or other legal document. Surely, and not a poor village girl probably with a very little education coming all the way from remote Mutur knew how to get a false date inserted in a passport.

But the SLBFE seems to be holding a brief for the employment agents though they could not say whether the agent who sent Rizana was not the culprit behind the forgery.

Deputy Minister Bhaila said the ministry will inquire from the District Registrar of Births what Rizana’s actual date of birth was and will also find out how a forged birth certificate if it was produced was made available to her.

Additional Controller of Immigration and Emigration Chulananda Perera said an inquiry has been instituted into the forgery of Rizana’s passport.

He said any person who migrates to the Middle East to work as a housemaid had to undergo a two weeks training at the SLFBE Training Centre. During the two weeks the SLFBE had enough time to verify whether she was actually a teenager though she held a passport stating she was 6 years older. It was not possible for them to not to have seen that she was a much younger person than the age given on her passport.

Rizana’s parents were issued passports on Thursday (12) to enable them to go to Riyadh with the Deputy Minister Bhaila. He also said Rizana’s mother too had had a passport earlier that she had lost during the tsunami. They were very poor people who could not afford to pay Rs.10,000 fine to obtain a new passport with the fine for losing the old one.

He said he had verified the details of their story with the Divisional Secretary of Mutur who confirmed that they were affected by the tsunami and were poor people. Now Rizana’s parents will be in another country under another law and will be hoping their daughter who wanted to overcome poverty could be freed. But the poor people like them who were affected by the tsunami are now under another bigger wave. Could they overcome this one?

The display at the SLBFE front office says its mission is to "Achieve organizational excellence whilst promoting and developing foreign employment markets, regulating and facilitating the industry, protecting the migrant workers and ensuring contribution to the national economy."

What good intentions, but some of the poor rural folk like Rizana Nafeek have found that the way to hell was also paved with good intentions.

There are about 1.5 million employed abroad and sixty percent of them are women employed as housemaids in West Asia. And we are making these women earn our foreign exchange.

 

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