RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Rizana Nafeek, a 19-year old housemaid from Sri Lanka, is on death row because the baby in her care died while she was bottle-feeding him. If her appeal is turned down, she will be taken to a public square to be publicly beheaded.
The Sri Lankan government says it is working for a reprieve, and has until Monday to file the plea. A last-minute pardon by the infant's parents could also spare her. But if her execution goes ahead, it will be the latest in a surge of beheadings that could surpass the kingdom's record of 191 in 2005.
After dropping to 38 last year, the figure for 2007 is already at least 102, including three women, according to Amnesty International.
Beheading has always been the punishment meted out to murderers, rapists, drug traffickers and armed robbers in Saudi Arabia. Whether what Nafeek did amounts to murder has never been spelled out by courts or other officials, but Saudi authorities, facing sustained criticism from foreign human rights groups, insist they are simply enforcing God's law.
In February, four Sri Lankan workers were executed for armed robbery and their headless bodies left on public display in Riyadh, triggering harsh criticism from international rights groups.
Amnesty International says some defendants are convicted solely on the basis of confessions obtained under duress, torture or deception.
Speaking of the housemaid's sentence, Kate Allen of Amnesty International called it "an absolute scandal that Saudi Arabia is preparing to behead a teenage girl who didn't even have a lawyer at her trial."
"The Saudi authorities are flouting an international prohibition on the execution of child offenders by even imposing a death sentence on a defendant who was reportedly 17 at the time of the alleged crime," she said.
Nafeek arrived in the kingdom on May 4, 2005 to work as a housemaid. She was given the additional duty of looking after the baby boy, a job the Sri Lankan Embassy says she was not trained to do. The embassy says the infant died on May 22 while she was bottle-feeding him.
Nafeek allegedly confessed, according to the statement, but then recanted, saying her admission was obtained under duress.
The Asian Human Rights Commission, an independent Hong Kong-based body of jurists and human rights activists, said it was an accident. The child was choking, it said, and Nafeek "was desperately trying to help by way of soothing and stroking the chest, face and neck of the baby." However, it said, "due to misunderstandings this case was presented as the murder of a baby by strangulation."
An estimated 5.6 million foreign workers, many of them Asian, serve a Saudi population of 22 million. Of the 102 executed this year, half were foreigners, including 21 Pakistanis, according to Amnesty International.
"The workers commit big crimes against Saudis," charged Suhaila Hammad of Saudi Arabia's National Society for Human Rights. She said the number of executions has risen because crime has increased.
She said prisoners are treated humanely and that beheadings deter crime.
"Allah, our creator, knows best what's good for his people," Hammad told The Associated Press. "Should we just think of and preserve the rights of the murderer and not think of the rights of others?"
Beheadings are carried out with a sword, with police holding back spectators and making sure no one takes photos. Prisoners, usually sedated, are made to kneel, flanked by clerics and law enforcement officials and facing the victim's family.
"The prisoner now recites verses from the Quran while a government official reads the charges and the verdict," according to an account in Arab News, a Saudi daily. "Halfway through the reading the executioner suddenly nicks the back of the prisoner's neck with his sword, causing him to tense and raise his head involuntarily."
Then, in one swift move, the prisoner is decapitated.
Beheadings take place all over Saudi Arabia, usually in a square next to a mosque.
In a recent interview with Al-Yaum daily, Fahd al-Abdullah, an executioner in the Eastern Province, called his job "a very ordinary profession, just like any other profession."
Al-Abdallah, 27, comes from a long line of executioners. As a child he would watch his grandfather wield the sword, and later was trained for a year by his uncle.
He said that before a beheading, he urges the victim's family to pardon the prisoner.
Some families do, just minutes before the blade falls. Others do it before an execution date is set in exchange for money or in response to appeals from members of the royal family.
A famous case was that of Samira Murait. In 2000 she shot dead a male acquaintance who stalked her after she married. After vigorous mediation efforts and pleas from the public as well as from a Saudi prince, the family agreed to forgive her. She had spent seven years in prison.
But Nafeek's Saudi employers refused to pardon her, and a court in Ad Dawadimi, 250 miles west of Riyadh, sentenced her to death on June 16.