Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry successfully convinced a Saudi court to overturn the death sentence of a Sri Lankan maid accused of adultery in Saudi Arabia. The accused woman, whose name has not been disclosed by Saudi and Sri Lankan officials, was involved in an affair with a Sri Lankan migrant worker, also living in Saudi Arabia.
The 45-year old married mother of two and the man in question had been found guilty in a Saudi court in April; while the Saudi court handed down a death-by-stoning sentence to the maid, her male counterpart was given a mere 100 lashes. However, after intensive lobbying by the Sri Lankan government, the court agreed to reopen the case.
The court claimed—according to a “Sharia” Law decree by the country’s clerics–that the reason behind the less severe punishment was because the man was unmarried, and therefore subject to a less severe punishment compared to a married woman and mother of two. Apparently, adultery for a married individual in Saudi Arabia merits a death sentence, whereas an unmarried culprit caught engaging in premarital sex receives 100 lashes.
However, in actual practice, male culprits are often spared punishment, even lashings, when caught engaging in premarital—or even extramarital—sex…..as long as the male is Saudi, and of a certain class. In a case that made international headlines, a group of Saudi males were accused of violently gang-raping a woman and were given minor custodial sentences, while their victim was severely punished for appearing in public without a male guardian. In this case, the man in question was an impoverished foreign worker, and Saudi Arabia’s atrocious record of migrant abuse is well-documented.
Of course, it’s no surprise that the Saudi government freely and openly engages in sexism and institutionalized racism while hiding behind the mask of Sharia law. This very punishment reveals the intersectional relationship between class and gender in the Saudi justice system, where a woman’s “sin” is prone to a harsher punishment than a man, and the male culprit’s sentence is influenced more by his class and ethnicity than the nature of the crime itself.
Saudi Arabia, one of the US government’s closest allies, commits human rights abuses daily, but is rarely held accountable by the international community. In fact, Saudi Arabia was granted the honor to serve as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in September, even though they actually REFUSED to sign and ratify both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Refugee Convention. The irony and hypocrisy in this becomes clear for anyone who is aware of Saudi Arabia’s archaic punishments, arbitrary sentencing, and separate legal system for Saudi males and vulnerable minorities. As the current chair of the UN Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia’s position on executions has barely shifted. Instead, according to Amnesty International, the country has “executed more than 150 people this year, mostly by public beheading, the largest number of executions in 20 years”.
Harsha de Silva, Sri Lanka’s deputy foreign minister, expended a considerable amount of effort in raising pressure on the Saudi government to overturn the Sri Lankan woman’s death penalty. The maid’s punishment was downgraded from death by stoning, to serving three years in prison, which was viewed as a victory by the Sri Lankan foreign ministry.