Saudi Arabia/Sri Lanka: Rizana Nafeek and Aung San Suu Kyi

WLUML networkers

The sparing of young Rizana Nafeek from beheading in Saudi Arabia, and her return home to her family in Eastern Sri Lanka, is all we need now to complement our joy at the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. It is heartening to read reports that the King of Saudi Arabia has, subsequent to world-wide appeals, including from our own President Rajapakse and reportedly Prince Charles of the UK, asked Saudi officials to hold talks with the bereaved Saudi family, whose 4 month old infant died after the 17 year old maid was asked to bottle-feed it. This tragedy took place less than three weeks after young Rizana’s arrival in Saudi.

Though this case may raise larger issues, these have to be addressed later. What is vital now is making every effort to spare Rizana’s life. One wonders whether enough attention has been given to the likelihood that Rizana was in a seriously traumatized state herself? Bad enough that she was the eldest child of a family living in the direst poverty in Mutur, a small multi-ethnic town in the Trincomalee District of North East Sri Lanka. Their sole income was from wood-collecting in the forest. Do we realize that this under-age girl  was sent abroad (on a forged birth certificate) less than five months after the tsunami that caused particular devastation on our East Coast? How far has it sunk into us that she had suffered living in a war torn area all her life? Do we have any conception of the extent to which the society in which she grew up has been continuously ravaged by decades of armed conflict? How this started even before she was born? (See annex for more information)  Have we thought of what it must have been like for her to arrive in Saudi, in a totally alien environment, unable to speak or understand the language, in a desperate effort to help her destitute parents and three younger siblings? Have we been sufficiently conscious of  all these extra factors which require heightened sympathy for her desperate family?

Those involved in trying to save Rizana need to be aware of these considerations and emphasise them in their efforts. They need to be communicated to the parents of the baby, who most certainly deserve and must be told of our sympathy in their bereavement, and who have the power to  spare Rizana’s life. Whatever the outcome, they need to be taken to heart by all of us in Sri Lanka, who I fear may have failed poor, lonely, Rizana Nafeek now in her fifth year of incarceration with a public beheading her very possible fate.

Suriya Wickremasinghe

15 November 2010

The writer, a lawyer, is a founder member (1971) and current volunteer Secretary of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka. She is a former Chair of the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International.



Rizana Nafeek was sent to Saudi Arabia in May 2006. What follows gives some idea of the times she had personally lived through, the horrors starting from before she was born.  After she left, Mutur went through an even greater tragedy, which is not gone into here, although it must certainly have affected her already distraught family

Nirupama Rao in THE HINDU 21 October 2003

The little fishing town of Mutur in Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka presents a clear picture of the current dynamic between the Tigers and Muslims. Trincomalee district has an even mix of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese. Mutur, a one-hour boat ride from Trincomalee town across the waters of a wide bay, is home to 60,000 people, some 33,000 are Muslim, 22,000 Tamils and a thousand Sinhalese. Most of the Muslims are settled in the main town. Most of the Tamils live in the areas around it. After the ceasefire, Mutur was the scene of two major clashes between the two communities. The first incident came within months of the ceasefire. A concrete cross outside Mutur town was vandalised. Tamils, led by the Tigers, and Muslims clashed over the desecration. There were incidents of stone-throwing. Houses were damaged, a mosque was desecrated. The LTTE's office at Mutur, which had just then been opened under the terms of the ceasefire accord, came in for some stone-throwing. The violence spread to Valaichenai in Batticaloa where it assumed more serious proportions with fully armed Tamils fighting Muslims, resulting in deaths and injuries to many.

The tensions from that flare-up simmered till April this year when two Muslim youth from a fishing hamlet near Mutur disappeared after putting out to sea. Their families learnt that the two were being held by the Tigers in Sambur, an LTTE-controlled area. They visited Sambur every day to plead with the Tigers for the boys' release. Two weeks later, after the mother of one committed suicide triggering off riots in Mutur, the Tigers denied the boys were in their custody. By then, three people had died, houses and other property burnt and destroyed, and the divide between Mutur's Muslims and Tamils complete.

From The Muttur tragedy: A re-examination ? by GH Pieris

…..  the history of serious clashes between the Muslims and Tamils of Muttur could be traced back to 1987 when a communal conflagration was ignited by the killing of a Muslim civil servant and the abduction of several Muslims, allegedly by LTTE cadres making their presence felt in the area. Thereafter, in the early 1990s, when the LTTE put into operation its programme of “ethnic cleansing” of the “north-east” (this was the era of the large-scale ˜Mosque massacres” in Batticaloa District and of mass eviction of Muslims from Mannar), there were several spells of violence in the Muttur-Sampur-Toppur area which, however, did not cause “internal displacement” on the same massive scale witnessed in Batticaloa and Mannar. There was, in response, the formation of militias bearing names such as “;Jihad” and “Al Fatah” reported from some of the main Muslim areas of the east at that time.