Friday, October 9, 2015

Karan Pradhan - Indian worker's hand chopped off: Saudi Arabia's terrible record on justice

Reports emerged on Thursday that in the latest case of abuse of domestic help by a Saudi employer, 56-year-old Kasturi Munirathinam had her right arm severed by her employer in Riyadh. Somehow, phrases like ‘in the latest case’ or ‘in another instance’ seem redundant considering how often this seems to happen. 

Now, normally, the incidents that grab the headlines tend to occur outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The case last month of first secretary at the Saudi Embassy in New Delhi Majed Hassan Ashoor — who fled the country after being accused of sexually assaulting his Nepali domestic helpers — comes to mind.

So too do the cases of Saudi diplomat in Britain Jarallah Al-Malki — accused of enslaving a Philippines and an Indonesia national; some of the high-profile residents of a villa in McLean, Virginia — in which two domestic helps from the Philippines were enslaved; Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir — who was arrested and sentenced in the UK to 20 years imprisonment after beating his domestic help to death; and most recently, Prince Majed Abdulaziz Al-Saud for the alleged sexual assault of his domestic help.

But these are issues that don’t so much cross the limits of diplomatic immunity, as zoom over it at 180 kmph in a shiny red Enzo Ferrari with an outstretched middle finger emblazoned across the bonnet. On Saudi soil however, incidents of abuse occur fairly regularly.  As Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2015 on Saudi Arabia details, domestic workers frequently endure a range of abuses including overwork, forced confinement, non-payment of wages, food deprivation, and psychological, physical, and sexual abuse without the authorities holding their employers to account.

It adds that when these informal employees try and lodge a complaint about abuse at the hands of their employers, they “sometimes faced prosecution based on counter-claims of theft or ‘sorcery’.” Which brings us back to Kasturi’s case.

Anil Kautiyal, first secretary (labour) at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh, is quoted by The Times of India as having said, “She (Kasturi) told (Saudi officials) that her employers were ill-treating her… That appears to have provoked the savage attack”. The Al-Sahafa police, who arrested the woman employer accused of having cut off Kasturi’s arm, has subsequently handed the case to the Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah (General Intelligence Directorate; the Kingdom’s principal intelligence agency).

While there is a piece of legislation that could give Kasturi justice, the extent of justice is questionable. In 2013, the Kingdom’s Council of Ministers approved the Regulation to Protect Against Abuse which defines abuse as ‘any act of bodily, psychological, or sexual mistreatment’. The Regulation directs that the punishment for this can be imprisonment for a period of between one month and one year, and/or a fine of between 5,000 and 50,000 Saudi Riyals (between Rs 86,000 and Rs 8.6 lakh).

In other words, if (and this is a big ‘if’), Kasturi’s employer is found guilty, she could spend up to one year behind bars for the one arm she chopped off. A tasteless summation, but that’s what it boils down to.

However, the very real prospect of the employer relying on the tried-and-tested formula of blaming Kasturi for theft or ‘sorcery’ can certainly not be ruled out. And there’s a distinct possibility that this could, unfortunately, see Kasturi’s employer receive a reduced punishment (if any). As per the Regulation to Protect Against Abuse, ‘not all acts of abuse as defined (above) will constitute criminal offences’.

In the event that the charge of theft — let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’s not sorcery — is levelled against Kasturi, under Saudi Arabian law, which is deeply enshrined in Wahhabi doctrine, amputation is the prescribed punishment. The penal system in Saudi Arabia — that has already seen over 100 beheadings in the first half of this year — is reportedly not replicated anywhere else in the world, except in a few territories in West Asia. It is probably worth mentioning that these territories are the ones administered by the Islamic State.

That is one of the reasons why attaining justice in the Kingdom, particularly as a foreign national who happens not to be a Sunni Muslim, is difficult. A chunk of the 2.5 million Indians working in Saudi Arabia as domestic workers, manual labourers or other unskilled labourers live with the fear of similar, if not worse, problems. A loose understanding of human rights coupled with a barbaric system of punishments and a sprinkling of second-class citizen status for foreign nationals is a triumvirate of problems faced by most migrant workers from South Asia to Saudi Arabia, and this is unlikely to end any time soon. As for Kasturi, despite External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj's firm words, justice will be hard to come by.

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