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Sri Lankan teen maid on death row

  • Story Highlights
  • Girl convicted of killing baby in her care in Saudi Arabia when she was 17
  • Nafeek says the child died accidentally, choking on milk
  • Girl's family displaced by December 2004 tsunami, renewed civil war in Sri Lanka
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Reuters) -- Humble woodcutter Mohammed Sultan Nafeek's teenage daughter moved to Saudi Arabia to work as a housemaid to support her family after they were displaced by the 2004 tsunami. Now she is on death row, and all he can do is pray.

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Razeena Mohammad (left) and Mohammad Sultan Nafeek, parents of Rizana Nafeek.

Rizana, who was 17 when she started work in Saudi Arabia, was convicted of killing a 4-month-old baby boy in her care just two weeks into her job.

Nafeek says the child died accidentally, choking on milk.

His daughter was sentenced to beheading in a case rights groups say underlines the vulnerability of many of the 1.5 million Sri Lankans who work abroad -- nearly 400,000 of them in Saudi Arabia alone.

"Our family was suffering hardship, and so our daughter volunteered to go and work abroad to send money home," Nafeek told Reuters by telephone from his modest home in Mutur in Sri Lanka's war-torn northeast.

After the December 2004 tsunami forced them from their home, the family was displaced again by renewed civil war between the state and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

Nafeek visited Saudi Arabia with Sri Lanka's deputy foreign minister this month in a bid to secure clemency and met with relations of the dead child's parents but came away empty handed.

Under Saudi law, a pardon is the gift of the family of the victim, and so far the parents of the dead child have refused to meet either the family or Sri Lankan officials.

"The cops told us: 'Go and pray to Allah. If you can get the forgiveness of the parents, your daughter will be free,' " he said. "So I am praying all the time."

"If we had been able to meet the parents, we are sure they would have been willing to forgive our daughter after seeing our situation."

The Sri Lankan government is investigating the agency that sent Rizana to work abroad when she was technically still a child but remains hopeful she will be pardoned or exonerated.

"I am fairly confident," said Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Bhaila. "We have spoken to tribal leaders of their particular tribe, we have spoken to area officials... It is they who will now have to speak (to the parents)."

"His Excellency the President (Mahinda Rajapaksa) has been following this case very keenly. This is an exceptional case because of her tender age," he added.

Rights groups accuse the government of failing to protect its expatriate workers -- one of the main sources of foreign-exchange revenues for the $23 billion economy -- with legal aid.

They also decry Saudi Arabia's legal system.

"This case raises many troubling questions about the treatment of children and foreigners in Saudi Arabia's criminal-justice system," Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued overnight.

"International law prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18."

Saudi Arabia executed four Sri Lankans convicted of armed robbery earlier this year, and did not inform Sri Lankan authorities beforehand.

Sri Lanka reinstated its own death penalty in 2004 after the murder of a high court judge, but it has been dormant since 1976.

There is no indication any of the dozens of convicted murderers, rapists and drug smugglers on death row in Sri Lanka and effectively serving life prison terms will actually be executed. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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