Monday, February 15, 2010, Safar 30, 1431 A.H   ISSN 1563-9479
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Opinion Archive
The News International Pakistan

 Travesty of justice
Qol Iyaz Moazem Khan was the 38th man beheaded in Saudi Arabia this year. His crime was that he had been found in possession of heroin, which had been concealed in his stomach. Most Pakistanis beheaded under Saudi law are allegedly convicted of drug trafficking. Although it is extremely difficult to gather statistics on beheadings in Saudi Arabia, compiling various reports written by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, it appears that in 2007, 153 individuals were beheaded in Saudi Arabia, half of whom were foreigners. Moreover, six Pakistanis were beheaded in Saudi Arabia in the first quarter of 2007 alone.

Going further back, in 1998, for instance, 29 people were executed, including 12 Pakistanis. Other nationalities targeted were Nigerian, Afghan, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Philipino, Syrian, Jordanian, Ethiopian, Chadian, and Yemeni. The fact that Asian and African expatriates are most often the subjects of the beheadings attests to the fact that the law is perhaps not evenly applied. Many poor foreign workers who find themselves on the wrong side of the law in Saudi Arabia are not given a fair trial. Possession of drugs, for example, is deemed conclusive evidence of guilt. Confessions are extracted without due process or in the absence of any legal assistance. Most unfortunately, these disadvantaged souls are not supported by their governments and given little to none attention by the international, or more disturbingly, even national media. Quite the contrary is the case however if an individual from a western country awaits death row.

Although even western governments are criticized by human rights groups and certain journalists for not speaking out enough for fear of jeopardizing multi-billion dollar defence contracts, their governments do succumb to public pressure and almost certainly intervene before a death sentence is carried out. It is no secret that western powers carry more clout with the Saudi government than the Pakistanis. However, there is no harm in trying, and trying aggressively at that.

In the year 2000, for example, there was a sharp rise in the number of Indians beheaded on drug-related offences in Saudi Arabia. From one in 1998, the number jumped to 24 in 2000, prompting certain Indian officials to press for an investigation. The results of the inquiry showed that many poor workers, mainly from the state of Kerala, were duped by drug dealers posing as job recruiters. Authorities became aware of the practice when the mother of a 20-year old carpenter claimed that her son was tricked into carrying drugs into Saudi Arabia. He was arrested at the airport and beheaded in 1995.

If a fair trial were allowed, perhaps we would find that many poor workers are tricked or given the wrong information by conniving drug barons who sit back and make the money while potentially innocent young men and women (at least two Pakistani women have been beheaded on charges of drug smuggling, in 2000 and 2003 respectively) pay with their lives. The fact that the number of beheadings for drug trafficking has not decreased over the years shows that this draconian law is not the solution. Punishing the carrier without investigating deeper into all links involved in the supply chain, will never solve the problem.

Instead, what we are left with is a terrible form of Third World exploitation and a sense of utter helplessness on the part of individuals from our part of the world. A most heartrending case took place a few months ago, when 19-year old Rizana Nafeek was beheaded in Saudi Arabia. Rizana belonged to a Muslim family in Sri Lanka. Her parents had suffered great loss at the hands of the tsunami and sent then 17-year old Rizana to Saudi Arabia so that she could earn a living. Two years later, Rizana, who was a housemaid, was condemned to death by beheading because an infant in her care had died while she was feeding him. Most likely, the baby had choked on the milk young Rizana was feeding him. The death of the infant was taken as conclusive evidence of her guilt.

Contrast that with the Gilford murder case in 1996. Two British nurses, Deborah Parry and Lucille McLauchlan, were arrested in Saudi Arabia for allegedly murdering their Australian colleague, Yvonne Gilford. The British nurses spent 18 months in a Saudi prison before King Fahd commuted their sentences, under pressure from the British government. Ms Parry, who once faced beheading, later sold her story to London's Daily Express for a reported $100,200. Ms Lauchlan, who had been convicted of being an accessory in the murder and sentenced to eight years imprisonment and 500 lashes, sold her story to The Mirror, for a reported $160,000. Needless to say, both stories made a mockery of the Saudi justice system in spite of having released both women after a mere 18-month prison stint.

Presently, a Canadian man faces death row in Saudi Arabia. Allegedly, he is guilty of assault and murder of a Syrian. The Canadian media is writing about the story regularly and public advocacy groups are marching on Ottawa's Parliament Hill to pressure their government to have his sentence commuted. It is reported that their Foreign Office is already involved, and if need be, the prime minister will directly ask King Abdullah for clemency. Canada is willing to do all this for its citizen, Mohammed Kohail.

But our Moazem Khan and countless others have perished without a word of protest, not even a proper obituary, just a pathetic matter-of-fact news item in unsympathetic tone, stating that he was beheaded and therefore he must have been guilty. Let's get rid of this apathy. Pakistani civil society has come a long way recently in their desire to institute civil liberties. Let's not forget our brethren overseas, especially those who may be victimized because they are poor and weak. We are all too keen to cash in on the workers' remittances that our fellow Pakistani labourers send in from the Gulf. Let's also speak out for their rights for a change.

And therefore, I end this piece by appealing to our new government--to Prime Minister Gilani and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi--Pakistan must speak out in protest, even if it is after the execution. We must ensure that in future Pakistanis who are subjected to draconian laws abroad do not feel that they have no one to look out for them. I also request the religious parties to take this travesty of justice--one set of rules for the Christian western worker and entirely another for the disadvantaged Muslim worker--as seriously as they take the blasphemous cartoons. They must demonstrate, albeit peacefully, outside the Saudi embassy and register their protest. Failing all that, I appeal to Khawaja Asif, who hails from my hometown of Sialkot, and minces no words--perhaps Khawaja Sahib it's time for another speech on the floor of the house--in the style of your impressive 2006 speech which has recently made the rounds on the internet to great applause. It's about time we showed the world that we are not a nation of pushovers!

The writer is a London-based lawyer and can be contacted via her website

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