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Like Sarath Fonseka, Rizana Nafeek also needs justice

 Nafeek’s appeal lawyers produced a competent Tamil translator from the Sri Lanka Embassy who translated Nafeek’s version of the accident at the trial. They also raised the issue of her being a minor at the time of the accident and the fact that she was asked to perform a duty that she was not trained or employed to do.

by Shanie

"Enthroned upon the mighty truth,
Within the confines of the laws,
True Justice seeth not the man,
But only hears his cause.

Unconscious of his creed or race,
She cannot see, but only weighs;
For Justice with unbandaged eyes
Would be oppression in disguise."

(October 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
Paul Laurence Dunbar, an outstanding African American poet, wrote the above poem titled ‘Justice’ in 1898 following the lynching of Richard Coleman, a black man who allegedly killed his employer’s wife. It was a time in the United States when blacks enjoyed little human rights; without even a semblance of a fair trial, they were being lynched and burnt to death in mob violence. A Baptist Church organization had passed a resolution challenging the US government not simply to protect black life, but to protect citizens who "were being burned, lynched, mobbed, and denied every right as men and citizens.., without regard to law or justice, without a word of condemnation, advice, or exhortation from the Chief Magistrate of this nation." But lynching was to continue for several more decades in the US, before it was abolished by law.. This column has taken this poem from Dinushika Dissanayake’s thoughtful essay on the ‘Criminal Justice System in Sri Lanka: Continuing Challenges and Aspirations’ published in the LST Review of May 2010. Dunbar’s poem comes alive with relevance when Justice with unbandaged eyes is oppressing men and women and denying them their dignity.

Most readers are aware of the unfortunate case of Rizana Nafeek, the young Sri Lankan woman who has been sentenced to death by the Saudi Arabian Courts. Nafeek was only seventeen years old when she was sent to Saudi Arabia in 2005 to work as a housemaid in a Saudi home. She was too young to be employed but her age was falsified to show her as having passed the age of majority. Who was to blame for this we still do not know. Her age stated in her Passport could only have been copied from her birth certificate which would have shown her correct age. It means that foreign employment agents seem able to manipulate passport details to suit the needs of their clients.

Within a few weeks of her taking up employment in Saudi Arabia, her employers left her alone with a four-month old infant to tend. Nafeek was bottle-feeding, when the baby reportedly choked. With her inexperience, she was unable to handle the crisis and had made various unsuccessful attempts to revive the choking child. After all, Nafeek was trained to be a housemaid not a nurse. When the employers arrived, the child was already dead.

Nafeek was charged with murder and based on a "confession" signed by her, was found guilty in 2007 and sentenced to death by beheading. It was only at this point that various human rights organizations learnt of the plight of this helpless young woman. Mention must be made here of the untiring work of the Hong Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission, the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations and individuals who raised the money for Nafeek to lodge an appeal with the Saudi Supreme Court. Her appeal lawyers challenged her alleged confession which was in Arabic, having been translated from Nafeek’s oral statement in Tamil. When the "translator" was called as a witness in the appeal hearing, it was reported that he had left the country and was not available. It also appeared that the "translator" was not a competent person but an Indian national employed in Saudi Arabia as a sheep herder.

Rizana Nafeek’s Appeal

Nafeek’s appeal lawyers produced a competent Tamil translator from the Sri Lanka Embassy who translated Nafeek’s version of the accident at the trial. They also raised the issue of her being a minor at the time of the accident and the fact that she was asked to perform a duty that she was not trained or employed to do. Nevertheless, the Saudi Supreme Court, after a long delay, this week confirmed the death sentence. It is unfortunate that this confirmation comes so soon after the unseemly brouhaha created in the Sri Lankan media over the dubious case of a returning Sri Lankan housemaid who claimed that her Saudi employer had inserted some two dozen nails into her body. The Saudi authorities have naturally reacted with skepticism over this claim. We seem as a nation to have a jingoistic mind-set that is ever so willing to accept stories of national pride being hurt by foreigners mistreating our nationals. This woman has even been promised house by the state. This is not going to be the last time we have heard from returning Sri Lankans of ill-treatment by their foreign employers. But the sad outcome is for women like Nafeek and others seeking employment in the Kingdom.

President Rajapaksa has rightly appealed for clemency for Nafeek from the King of Saudi Arabia. It is a pity that this case was not left to be handled from the beginning by the many outstanding professionals we have in our Foreign Service. Instead we had a lot of meddling politicians who were attempting to gain political mileage from Nafeek’s case. If not for the intervention by human rights organizations, notably the Asian Human Rights Commission, Nafeek’s case may have been lost long ago. Even now, apart from President Rajapaksa’s prompt appeal, organizations like the AHRC, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are trying to get other world leaders to support their appeal for clemency. It is also good that various religious leaders in Sri Lanka are joining in supporting the appeal from President Rajapaksa. This undoubtedly innocent young woman from an impoverished village in the Mutur area, does not deserve either the punishment or the trauma that she and her family and friends have been undergoing for the past five years.

Student Unrest in the Universities

It is disconcerting to note an escalation in student unrest in many of our leading universities. It has become somewhat fashionable for the middle classes and even the media to state that outside politicians are instigating the students to violence. No doubt, some of the violence directed against university officials by the students deserves our unreserved condemnation, whether the students were provoked or not. But the response by the Ministry of Education and the Police has undoubtedly been heavy-handed. For instance, the Minister of Higher Education was subject to hooting when he went to Peradeniya some months ago for the opening of a building. Hooting has been part of our student culture at Peradeniya, if not our national culture, for as long as we can remember. Visiting politicians always received a hoot even from students who supported their politics. And the politicians laughed it off and even gave it back to the students when they spoke at the Union Society. In a recent souvenir published on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary get-together of the 1960 Peradeniya batch, many of the then students who later occupied senior positions in the civil service, Police, the universities, etc have spoken nostalgically of such incidents. All such incidents were taken by both sides in a friendly spirit. It was therefore sad to see the present Minister of Higher Education taking umbrage at the hoot he received and for the Police and University administrators to arrest and suspend students. It is such heavy-handed responses to student protests that spark more violent unrest.

There is the reported incident of a Vice Chancellor at one of the leading Universities sending some girl students for a virginity test to the Colombo South Hospital. The Vice Chancellor concerned has denied that he did so but there is apparently credible evidence that some girls were indeed sent to the Hospital in a University vehicle. The doctors at the Hospital performed no such tests but such incidents, even if the full facts were misreported, make the students lose confidence in the University administration. In the same University, apparently some student monks have been subject to violence causing the Chancellor, a well-known scholar monk, to express concern.

In another University situated in the electorate of a controversial Deputy Minister accused of instigating many acts of violence, outside thugs have, in the presence of the Police, manhandled a student. Like in other instances where this Deputy Minister was involved, TV cameramen have captured the incident on film identifying the thugs involved. But we can be sure the incident will not be pursued further.

We have highlighted some of these incidents not to white-wash the student agitators but to point out that much of the unrest can be contained if the University administration is left free to handle student protests without political interference. It is the politicization of the administration that causes more problems than the politicization of student unions.

Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, a former Vice Chancellor, has in a recent newspaper article drawn our attention to the need to preserve academic freedom in our Universities free of political interference. The public, she says, have a right to know what the Vice Chancellors, senior academics and administrators are doing to ensure that core values in maintaining a teaching, research and learning environment free of political interference and bias are safeguarded. The University community has a responsibility to halt the erosion of these values and to prevent a politicized environment becoming the norm. Therein lies the answer to student unrest.

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