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Saudi Arabian Bad Dreams

By Human Rights Watch

17 July , 2004

Read the full report here

A new 135-page report, "Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia", released recently by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) provides the first comprehensive look at the pervasive abuses foreign workers endure in Saudi Arabia.

Authored by Ms. Virginia N. Sherry, Associate Director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division, the report acknowledged the help rendered by CHRO in conducting the Kerala/Indian part of the study. It said : "Mukundan C. Menon, Secretary-General of the nongovernmental Confederation of Human Rights Organizations of Kerala (CHRO), carried out advance work for this report in Kerala state in India in 2003 as a consultant to Human Rights Watch. He accompanied Ms. Sherry in Kerala in November and December 2003, and served as an indefatigable interpreter and logistician. Human Rights Watch acknowledges his efforts with deep appreciation and those of his CHRO colleagues throughout the state, who helped arrange meetings with returned migrant workers and families of Keralites who were executed or are still imprisoned in Saudi Arabia."

The report is based on information gathered from migrant workers and their families in "mud brick houses off dirt roads in tropical agricultural areas" of Kerala in southwest India, apart from those in metropolitan Manila in Philippines, and in rural villages of Bangladesh. The victims include skilled and unskilled workers; Muslims, Hindus, and Christians; young adults traveling outside their home countries for the first time; and married men, and single and divorced women, with children to support.

Foreign workers, who comprise one-third of the Kingdom's population, face torture, forced confessions and unfair trials when they are accused of crimes, HRW said in the report that offers a rare glimpse into the Saudi justice system The report also shows the abysmal and exploitative labor conditions many workers face, and the utter failure of the justice system to provide redress.

The report quoted extensively the experience of victims and their immediate relatives. A woman in a Kerala village in India, whose son was beheaded following a secret trial, could only say this: "We have no more tears, our tears have all dried up." She deferred to her husband to provide the account of their son's imprisonment and execution in Jeddah, the report said.

While HRW focuses on what it considers the pressing need for judicial reform, it urges the country's ruling princes to make a much stronger commitment to political reform. "Faced with a string of attacks over the last year by radical Islamists, the government has been tempted to cling to the political status quo", it said and called that "a self-defeating strategy". The government needs to repair its legitimacy, which the report argues has been badly battered by the closed and arbitrary nature of the political system, the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the ruling family, and the corruption and profligacy of many of its members.

The HRW report is the first comprehensive examination of the variety of human rights abuses that foreign workers experience in Saudi Arabia. The voices of these migrants provide a window into a country whose hereditary, unelected rulers continue to choose secrecy over transparency at the expense of justice. The stories in the report illustrate why so many migrant workers, including Muslims, return to their home countries deeply aggrieved by the lack of equality and due process of law in the kingdom. In an important sense, the report is an indictment of unscrupulous private employers and sponsors as well as Saudi authorities, including interior ministry interrogators and Shari'a court judges, who operate without respect for the rule of law and the inherent dignity of all men and women, irrespective of gender, race, and religion.

Some of the most frightening and troubling findings of the report concern mistreatment of women migrant workers, both in the workplace and in Saudi prisons. These workers delivered dairy products, cleaned government hospitals, repaired water pipes, collected garbage, and poured concrete. Some of them baked bread and worked in restaurants; others were butchers, barbers, carpenters, and plumbers. Women migrants cleaned, cooked, cared for children, worked in beauty salons, and sewed custom-made dresses and gowns. Unemployed or underemployed in their countries of origin, and often impoverished, these men and women sought only the opportunity to earn wages and thus improve the economic situation for themselves and their families.

The HRW report describes the case of 300 women from India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines who cleaned hospitals in the country's second city, Jeddah. They worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, and at night were locked in crowded dormitory-style accommodation where 14 women shared one small room. HRW says it found men and women in conditions resembling slavery. Saudi Arabia's labour minister recently said there were between eight and nine million foreign workers in the country - a much higher figure than previous estimates. Most are from the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia.

Criminal Justice System And Executions

The HRW report also provides an intimate view of the workings of Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system, through the eyes of migrant workers with first-hand experience of its significant flaws. And it is the families and friends of migrants who were beheaded, pursuant to judicial rulings, who describe how Saudi authorities kept them and consular officials in the dark until well after the executions were carried out. The mortal remains of these victims were not returned to their families, who until now have no information about what happened to the bodies.

Saudi Arabia continues to flaunt its treaty obligations under international and domestic law. Consular officials have not been notified promptly of the arrests of their nationals. Criminal suspects are not informed of their rights under the law. Interrogators from the ministry of interior torture suspects with impunity, behind the curtain of prolonged incommunicado detention, in the quest for confessions whose veracity is tenuous at best. Migrant workers told HRW of how they were forced to sign confession statements that they could not read, under the threat of additional torture. A twenty-three-year-old Indian tailor described two days of beatings in police custody. On the third day, his interrogators gave him two pages handwritten in Arabic and instructed him to sign his name three times on each page. "I was so afraid that I did not dare ask what the papers were, or what was written on them," he said.

Migrants' accounts of their trials before Shari'a courts provide evidence of a legal system that is out of sync with internationally accepted norms of due process. None of the respondents interviewed by HRW had access to legal assistance before their trials, and no legal representation when they appeared in the courtroom. One Indian migrant worker told us about a judge who repeatedly called him a liar when he answered questions during his trial. A worker from the Philippines, who was imprisoned for five years before he was brought before a court for the first time, described how a judge sentenced him to 350 lashes because his interrogators had extracted a false confession. The judge justified this corporal punishment because the coerced confession, obtained under threats and torture, was untrue.

In many cases, the condemned men did not know that they had been sentenced to death, and their embassies were only informed after the fact. "No advance information is given to us before beheading of Indians," an Indian diplomat said in a television interview in 2003. "We generally get the information after the execution from local newspapers."

In cases of execution documented in this report, the bodies were not returned to the families, and relatives told HRW that they received no official information about the location in Saudi Arabia of the mortal remains.

An undetermined number of foreigners have been sentenced to death in the kingdom and are now awaiting execution. Details of their trials, and the evidence presented to convict them, are treated as closely held state secrets.

Migrant workers who were former prisoners told HRW that foreigners condemned to death typically were unaware of their sentences and had no advance notice of their date of execution. "The executed do not know what is about to happen to them until the very last moment," said an Indian who was held in Buraiman jail in Jeddah in 2000. "A large number of police come into the cell and ask for the person by name. Sometimes people are forcibly dragged out.I watched four Filipinos taken away like this."

Based on letters that some executed Indian nationals sent to their families from prison, which HRW reviewed during visits with their families, it appeared obvious that these men did not know that they had been sentenced to death. In most cases, the condemned men did not even know that their trials had been concluded. Family members explained how they typically received the first news of the executions unofficially, through phone calls from relatives or friends working in Saudi Arabia, or from anonymous letters that prisoners or other persons mailed to them. It was not until months later - and sometimes much longer -- that Indian authorities notified the families about the executions.

In 2003, the second secretary at the Indian embassy in Riyadh confirmed the prevailing secrecy:

"No advance information is given to us before beheading of Indians. We generally get the information after the execution from local newspapers. Whenever we received advance information in rare instances, we moved swiftly to stop such executions. In one such case, even the president of India sent a mercy petition to the Saudi king, which was rejected and the execution was carried out. Since this is the law here in Saudi Arabia, foreign diplomatic missions are unable to do much."

As the cases below indicate, the families of Indians executed in the kingdom for drug offenses had no information about the legal proceedings that led to the death sentences, including the place and dates of trials. They knew only the date of execution and, in some cases, the date of arrest.

Abdul Kalam Azad Abdul Kadir: "Please save my husband and bring him home."

Nazeema, a twenty-seven-year-old Indian Muslim who is the mother of two children, still believes that her husband Abdul Kalam will be returning any day from Saudi Arabia. Her relatives did not tell her about the letter that Abdul Kalam's father received from the Indian embassy, dated February 8, 2003. The letter informed him that Abdul Kalam was executed on June 18, 1999 for alleged heroin smuggling.

Abdul Kalam Azad Abdul Kadir, a native of the Palakkad district in Kerala state, went to Saudi Arabia for the first time in the early 1990's and worked for three years as an agricultural laborer. His family told us that he sent them 2,000 to 3,000 rupees every few months. When he returned home, he got married. In 1997, when Abdul Kalam was thirty-five years old, he traveled to Mumbai with six other Indian workers and an "agent" from Tamil Nadu to secure another employment visa to the kingdom. Abdul Kalam expected to work on a farm in al-Hasa, in the Eastern province. The men deposited their passports with another agent in Mumbai and paid him 20,000 rupees each. The agent subsequently "vanished," the family said, and Abdul Kalam returned to Mumbai to collect his passport and money. He telephoned his wife from the capital in July 1997 and informed her that someone had arranged his travel to Saudi Arabia and he was leaving the following week.

After that telephone conversation, no one heard from Abdul Kalam again. Over two years later, the family received a letter, dated August 15, 1999, from an Indian in Saudi Arabia who wrote that his uncle was in jail for drug offenses. His uncle, whom he visited in prison, met Abdul Kalam there and said that Abdul Kalam was facing narcotics charges. "My uncle told me that one Indian from Calicut and another from Palakkad were executed but I do not know if this is correct," he wrote, and urged the family to contact the Indian embassy in Riyadh. The letter provided no additional information. It took almost three years for Indian authorities to respond to the family's registered letters of inquiry about the case and confirm that Abdul Kalam had been executed.

P.T. Shamsudeen: "Your son asked me to tell you that he was executed today."

A short handwritten letter from an inmate in Section 17 of Buraiman prison in Jeddah is the way that P.T. Moheideen learned that his son Shamsudeen, thirty-seven years old and the father of three children, would not be coming home from Saudi Arabia. The letter, dated September 17, 1999, stated this: "Your son was arrested and jailed for drug trafficking. Today Shamsudeen was executed. He asked me to tell you. Friday is the day that letters go out from this prison."

Shamsudeen's father explained that his son first went to Saudi Arabia as a worker in 1985 and stayed for four years. He came back to India to get married, then returned to the kingdom three more times. He left India for the last time in 1997 with a visa to work as a driver in Damman that he purchased from an "agent" in Calicut for 20,000 rupees. His father provided the money as a loan.

The family heard nothing from Shamsudeen until a year later, when he sent a letter from Buraiman prison, informing them that he had been arrested at the airport with a group of Indians and did not know why. Over the next year the family received two more letters. In these letters Shamsudeen continued to assert that he did not know why he was arrested, and said that his case had not yet been brought before a court. He added that the "first batch" of men arrested with him were taken to court and that he expected to be called soon.

The family learned later that the six Indians who traveled with Shamsudeen to Saudi Arabia were all recruited by the same agency. In such situations, the family was told, if one member of the group was arrested on drug charges, the others were also taken into custody.

K.P. Ghafoor: "We are sorry to inform you that your son was executed."

In July 2000, Indian citizen K.P. Ghafoor, from Kerala state, was executed in Saudi Arabia. HRW research indicates that he was apparently unaware that he had been sentenced to death. The eldest of nine children, Ghafoor traveled to the kingdom for the first time in 1988, when he was twenty-three years old. According to his family, he worked as a cleaner in a post office in Mecca, for a monthly salary of 400 riyals, and was eventually promoted to clerk. He was fired from this government job when he returned to the kingdom late from his second leave in 1994, during which time he had married in India. He went back to Saudi Arabia again in 1997, on an umrah visa, but came home because he could not find work.

Ghafoor left his village again in 1998, hoping to obtain a visa to Saudi Arabia in Mumbai. He remained in the capital for two months before flying to Jeddah. The family did not hear from him until a month later, when they received a letter that he wrote from Buraiman prison. He explained that someone in Mumbai gave him "edibles" to deliver to an address in Jeddah, which he did. The recipient was arrested and led police to Ghafoor, who also was taken into custody. Ghafoor told his family that the package contained drugs.

Ghafoor wrote to his family monthly from prison. He commented in several letters that his court dates had been postponed, but never mentioned a trial. The last letter that the family received, dated July 3, 2000, contained one page of generalities, including a request that they write to him and a promise that he would include more information in his next letter. The family learned from a relative who worked in Jeddah that Ghafoor was executed several weeks later. Family members told Human Rights Watch that they were in shock and made no attempts to contact Indian authorities to confirm this news.

It was not until seven months later, February 11, 2001, that the Indian consulate in Jeddah mailed a brief letter to Ghafoor's father, notifying him of the date of the execution.

The family said that they know nothing more about the case. Gafoor's father received a second letter, dated March 19, 2001, from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Passport Office in Kozhikode. It simply noted that the office had received his son's passport from the Saudi government. Gafoor's remains were not sent back to his family. "We heard that bodies are never returned so we never asked about it," one relative said. Gafoor's only child, a son, is now seven years old.

Raghavan Asari Santhosh: "The Arab sponsor told me that no one could save my son."

A large framed photograph of his son Santhosh dominates the tiny sitting room in the home of Raghavan Asari, a sixty-year-old Indian carpenter, and his wife Seetha.

Santhosh was executed in Saudi Arabia on August 25, 1995, one of many innocent victims of Mumbai-based narcotics smugglers, his family believes.

In 1993, Santhosh sought an employment visa to work as a carpenter in Saudi Arabia. According to his father, he deposited his passport with a local travel agency, but after waiting for a while with no results he took it back. On his way home, Santhosh met an Indian "agent" who said he had a visa for a carpenter job in Jeddah at a monthly salary of 1,500 riyals. The price for the visa was 45,000 rupees, which the family borrowed from four local lenders. They paid the money on the agent's verbal promise of the job.

According to his father, Santhosh left his rural village in southern Kerala on October 6, 1993 and flew to Mumbai, in the company of another Indian "agent" named Samsuddin. He waited in the capital for nine days. On the day of his scheduled flight to Saudi Arabia, Santhosh returned to his room and found his suitcase torn apart. He told his family that Samsuddin consoled him and offered to lend him another bag, a briefcase, on the condition that he return it to a person in Saudi Arabia who would ask for it. Santhosh was arrested at Jeddah airport when customs officials found drugs in the bottom of the briefcase.

The family did not learn of Santhosh's arrest until two months later when an anonymous letter arrived from the brother of an Indian nurse who met Santhosh when he was having blood tests after his arrest. Alarmed, Santhosh's father visited local politicians and wrote letters to Indian government ministers, who replied that the government was inquiring about the case. In December 1994, Santhosh's father traveled to Saudi Arabia on a visa that a friend secured for him, with a job as a carpenter. He presented a petition to the Indian embassy in Riyadh, which was faxed to the consulate in Jeddah and he met with his son's Arab sponsor. He never attempted to visit Santhosh in prison because, he told us, Jeddah was such a long distance from Riyadh Santhosh sent letters to his family from Section 16 of Jeddah's Buraiman prison. "He wrote to us constantly. He was happy working as a carpenter in the jail and hoped to be back in Kerala soon," his father told us. "My impression was that my son was innocent, and an innocent man is never punished," he added. From what Santhosh communicated in the letters, he was brought to court two times, with a translator present. He never described what happened in the court and mentioned nothing about a verdict. The family believes that Santhosh did not know he had been sentenced to death. Until now, the family has no detailed information about his trial. Santhosh was twenty-four years old when he was executed.