Saudi execution spotlights domestic workers’ vulnerable lives

The execution of an Indonesian domestic worker by Saudi authorities this week without even informing her family and consular staff drew strong condemnation from Indonesian officials.  

Tuti Tursilawati was executed on Monday in the city of Thaif, Indonesia’s foreign ministry said, seven years after she was sentenced to death in connection with a murder.

News agencies Reuters and AFP reported that Tursilawati was found guilty of killing her employer in June 2011. Indonesian advocacy group Migrant Care was quoted as saying in September that Tursilawati had been defending herself from being raped.

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But the director for overseas citizen protection at Indonesia’s foreign ministry, Lalu Muhammad Iqbal, was quoted by The Jakarta Post as saying that Tursilawati did not commit the murder in self-defense against attempted rape.

“It is true that Tuti had been harassed, but not when she committed the murder,” Iqbal said. After the incident, she ran away from her employer but was raped by nine Saudi men before the police took her into custody. All of her rapists were processed separately, the newspaper reported.

Jakarta protests

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as “Jokowi,” on Wednesday criticized the Saudi decision to carry out the death penalty. He said the government had done everything it could to prevent the execution.

“We have many times [requested to be notified about executions] directly to King Salman [bin Abdulaziz Al Saud] and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir,” The Jakarta Post reported Jokowi as saying. “I have said it over and over again. Do not think that we are not taking political steps.”

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also called her Saudi counterpart to express disapproval. “Tuti’s execution was carried out without [prior notification]. I also summoned the Saudi ambassador [Usamah Muhammad Al Syuaiby] in Jakarta to meet me in Bali,” she said.

This is not the first time, however, that Indonesian citizens faced capital punishment in Saudi Arabia. In March, the Saudi authorities beheaded Indonesian national M. Zaini Misrin for murder despite Jokowi’s repeated pleas to grant clemency.

At the time, Saudi Arabia did not notify the Indonesian government beforehand about the execution.

Between 2011 and 2018, 102 Indonesians faced death row in Saudi Arabia. Three were executed, 79 were freed from the execution, and 20 are still locked in a legal process for clemency.

Observers say Indonesia would appear hypocritical if it criticized Saudi Arabia for carrying out the execution as the Southeast Asian country also has capital punishment on its books and implements it for certain crimes.

Read more: EU’s ‘dismay,’ UN’s ‘deep regret’ at Indonesia drug executions

Under Jokowi, Indonesia has executed 18 death row inmates convicted of drug-related offenses, including foreigners, since 2015.

Jakarta’s protests were based on the lack of consular notification before executing Tursilawati, rather than complaining about the execution. 

Wahyu Susilo, director of Migrant Care, criticized the Indonesian government’s failure to stop the execution. “Our diplomacy is weak,” he told DW. “The Saudi government has also been uncooperative when it comes to upholding human rights,” he added.

Mistreatment in Middle East

Tursilawati’s case once again highlights the dangers faced by foreign domestic workers, including Indonesians, in Saudi households.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest importers of domestic workers.

Although many domestic workers have positive relationships with their employers, accusations of abuse and fraudulent behavior remain widespread.

Read more: Saudi Arabia agrees to retry Sri Lankan maid sentenced to death by stoning

Stories often appear in local and international media outlets of employers treating domestic workers, most of whom are women, as akin to slaves, depriving them of basic freedoms and engaging in physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

The domestic work environment also limits the authorities’ ability to tackle the exploitation.

In most cases, what happens inside a household remains inside, and it’s tough for the workers to prove their mistreatment in the hands of their employers.

Abuse rife

Indonesien Missbrauch Dienstmädchen (AP)

Abused maids often need to take shelter like in the one pictured here

The so-called “Kafala,” or sponsorship, system governs the labor market in Saudi Arabia as well as a number of other Middle Eastern nations like the UAE, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar. Domestic workers from a number of Southeast Asian and South Asian countries migrate to these countries in search of better pay and lives.

The system, however, prohibits migrant laborers from changing jobs or leaving the country without their sponsor’s approval in most circumstances. In the case of domestic workers, it ties their visas to their employers, making them vulnerable and totally dependent on host families, say observers.

Workers attempting to escape from an abusive employer may face deportation, fines or even imprisonment.

With reports of abuse often drawing global attention over the past several years, countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have all recently come up with laws aimed at preventing the exploitation.

Still, rights groups say they fall short of what’s required to put an end to migrant worker mistreatment in the region.

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Indonesian migrant workers vulnerable to abuse abroad

After the recent execution, Migrant Care urged the Jokowi administration to strengthen efforts to protect Indonesian workers abroad.

It said Indonesia should reverse its recent decision to allow a limited number of Indonesian migrant workers to enter Saudi Arabia despite a 2015 moratorium banning new domestic workers from entering 21 Middle Eastern countries.

Indonesia introduced the ban following the execution of two other Indonesian maids by Saudi Arabia the same year.

Additional reporting by Tonggie Siregar.