The execution of Rizana Rafeed has been correctly condemned by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a large section of the international community and important human rights organizations. It stands out as one of the worst examples of human brutality in the name of law and calls into question the strong defense made of certain aspects of Sharia Law, by persons both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
The beheading of Rizana Rafeed, tragic as it is, comes hardly as a surprise judging from the long record of injustice by the Saudi authorities on this matter. To claim that the final act of brutality was part of Saudi Law, does not detract from the suffering she was made to undergo from the time of her being handed over to Police custody. This includes the very early sentence of death, the many obstacles to the process of legal appeal, the failure to provide her with adequate legal counsel, and the refusal to accept the fact of her being a juvenile during the committing of the alleged crime, despite evidence being accepted by the court.
It also raises important questions about our own position on the export of labour from the country, with regard to the protection we can afford to them as a State when they serve abroad, and the very process of selection for employment abroad. Although not Rizana’s fault, the very process of her selection and despatch to Saudi Arabia for domestic service as a “housemaid” raises important questions. It is now established that she was a minor at the time of her selection and sending out for employment. The forgery of her birth certificate and consequent falsifying of her passport details, to show that she was a major and all that followed, raises many questions about the process of screening applicants for foreign employment, and the ugly role played by most foreign employment agencies and their own sub-agents and in this task, as well as the authorities responsible for the proper handling of this work.
Unregistered employment agents
Rizana Rafeed is no more. The least we can do in her memory is to set this process of selection of right, free of the corruption that has been pervading it for several decades, with huge amounts of money being earned by registered and unregistered employment agents and no doubt by willing accomplices in the official institutions that are involved in this work. An immediate task is to introduce the most fool proof method of ascertaining the accurate or most approximate age of an applicant without sole dependence on a birth certificate, the forgery of which is not the stuff of rocket science. With today’s advances in technology it is not difficult to include the certification of proper or approximate age of an applicant from the medical records that have to be submitted. Bio-metric evidence could easily be obtained, and judging by the huge amounts applicants for foreign employment fork out to please job agents, the additional payment of such a fee could hardly make a difference.
There is also the necessity to carry proper and regular screening of the persons or organizations registered as foreign employment agents, and have good inspections of their earnings by the tax department and any other institutions that would be required to study such information for the evidence it may provide of illegal earnings, particularly the extortion of hopeful foreign employees.
The Rights of Women
We are fully aware of the massive protests that broke out in India, after the gang raping of a 23-year-old medical student in New Delhi shortly before Christmas last year. Indian women, initially the students and young women, then others and men too, were galvanized into strong protests, in the face of apparent indifference or lack of feeling by the government for the plight of women, who are the daily or hourly victims of attacks by men, in a wholly patriarchal society where women are traditionally oppressed.
The widespread nature of these protests and the pressure these brought on the government, the Police and all political parties have compelled the state and politicians in India to think of new and speedy action to provide immediate protection to women, in the form of better policing, speedy trials and possibly severe punishments for the guilty.
Sri Lanka does not have a patriarchal society as found in India. There is much more respect for women and their rights, with Buddhism playing an important role in his attitude in society towards women, although some who proclaim to be the defenders of Buddhist thinking today, seek to impose more burdens and restraints on women. However, the protests in India, draws attention to the downright failure of women’s’ organizations in Sri Lanka to pay any heed to the plight of nearly a million of our women abroad, who toil daily, and suffer hardship, humiliation, assault and both male and female violence, in the struggle to send in the remittances not only for the support of their families, but also for the sustenance of the national economy.
Rizana Rafeed is no more, but there are certainly hundreds or even thousands of other women undergoing great suffering in countries abroad, especially on the Middle East, including in countries of the so-called Arab Spring and its funders and opponents, whose voices of agony are hardly heard back at home in Sri Lanka. It will take the return of a woman with nails driven into her body, and the shocking instance of Riana’s execution to draw attention to this continuing tragedy faced by our women, about which our so-called women’s rights activists who can be very vociferous on some internal political causes (some, but very few, of importance) but prefer to remain tight lipped and deliberately silent on these issues of women’s rights and protection. The death of Rizana will do much to expose the hypocrisy in the so-called women’s rights organizations in Sri Lanka on the plight of a such a large number of the women population of the country, and also if it helps throw up new and more committed and effective leaders of women. These should be women whose activities are not solely intended to draw increased funding from organizations and governments abroad, but who can generate the necessary support from within the country and among our own people to fight for the rights of our own women.
Crime and punishment
The agony over the execution of Rizana Rafeed should also be a good opportunity to look more deeply into the issue of crime and punishment in Sri Lanka, especially at the increasing calls that are being made for a return to the death penalty, which was initially suspended during the days of the late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, and which after a brief resumption, has remained suspended for more than three decades. We read today, often reported with glee, how advertisements are placed for the recruitment of hangmen, and also about tenders for the supply of the hangman’s rope. The gallows at Welikada is reported to be getting lubrication and weight tests are being done on the gallows.
This is a good time to remember that Rizana Rafeed was ultimately the victim of the death penalty as practiced in another country, in a different manner and in public. However, whether it is a public beheading or hanging in a confined place the fact is the snatching away of the life of a human being.
Those who remain aghast at what happened to Rizana Rafeed, would do well to ponder on the fact that what matters is not the gruesome nature of her killing, but the very fact of such killing, when society takes upon itself the right to take the life of human being, especially when there is no good evidence that a penalty imposed as revenge, which is more or less the case in the death penalty, does not contribute to the reduction of crime, as seen from the evidence of most countries of the world today.
This is also a good time to look again at some of the worst aspects of Sharia Law, one example of which is public execution as happened to Rizana, and tell those who come forward to defend the practice of certain aspects of Sharia in our country, and insist they have to be understood and tolerated, despite their very brutality, with no consideration for the overall traditions and trends in this country that are against such violence whether directed at humans or animals.
It is also a good time for those who defend the inhumane aspects of Sharia, as practiced in states such as Saudi Arabia, and condone it as being the law of the land, to pay more heed to the culture and traditions through which the social and legal traditions of this country have largely evolved from a combination of Buddhism and Hinduism, and the impact of some of the later liberal thinking of colonial rulers.