Only weeks after the officially sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia has ignored the entreaties of the world’s largest Muslim country and executed an Indonesian maid for killing the employer she always claimed was trying to rape her.
President Joko Widodo was reportedly furious that the Saudi Arabian government had again given no prior notice of the October 28 execution, despite the maid’s fate being high on the agenda during a recent visit to Jakarta by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.
Widodo, who twice sent letters to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz seeking leniency for Tutu Tursilawati, is unlikely to change his solicitous approach to Saudi Arabia, mindful of the quota system that has allowed more than 1.1 million Indonesian haj pilgrims to make the spiritual journey to Islam’s holiest sites since 2012.
But Migrant Care, a nongovernmental organization advocating the rights of the millions of Indonesians working abroad, wants the government to reverse a recent decision to let a limited number of migrant workers to return to a country that has taken on pariah status since Khashoggi’s grisly killing.
Three years ago, Jakarta banned workers from going to Saudi Arabia and 20 other Middle Eastern countries in response to a string of abuse cases. But human traffickers and the workers themselves have found ways around the moratorium.
Critics warned at the time that without genuine efforts to sign and enforce international labor conventions, including the right of workers to change jobs, the ban would only drive the trade underground and expose them to even greater risks.
For many Indonesians long used to the abuse of their maids and other migrant workers in the Middle East, it beggars belief that a devout 33-year-old Muslim mother of three children from a small village in West Java would resort to murder without a compelling reason.
Tursilawati was sentenced to death in 2010 for a crime she committed only nine months after arriving in the Saudi city of Thaif. She became the fifth Indonesian maid to be executed in Saudi Arabia over the past decade, leaving another 18 Indonesians on the country’s death row.
Saudi authorities also failed to notify Indonesia of the execution last March of Indonesian migrant worker Zainal Misrin, who was denied the right to legal counsel in his trial for the alleged murder of his employer in 2004.
Human rights groups claim executions have accelerated since the rise to power of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the so-called reformist widely believed to have ordered Khashoggi’s death in a bungled operation that destroyed his efforts to soften Saudi Arabia’s image.
Lagging behind only China and Iran, Saudi Arabia has carried out 458 executions by beheading and firing squad over the past three years, including the January 2016 mass execution of 47 Islamic extremists convicted of home-grown terrorism.
Ironically, while Riyadh provides little economic aid to Muslim nations, it spends billions of dollars spreading puritanical interpretations of Sunni Islam that have been used as ideological justification for terrorist acts in Indonesia and elsewhere.
Apart from terrorism, Saudi Arabia prescribes the death penalty for murder, rape, armed robbery and drug trafficking, using what Human Rights Watch calls a “notoriously unfair criminal justice system” where the evidence is often scanty at best.
Indonesia’s nine million migrant workers, about half of them documented and now mostly concentrated in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong, send back about US$8-9 billion a year in remittances, making them one of the country’s highest foreign exchange earners.
Labor migration contributes directly to improving lives and also in building the skill level of the domestic work force, which the World Bank says should be incorporated into a broader job creation strategy.
It was only during the previous Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presidency – and through the efforts of foreign minister Marty Natalagawa – that the government began to follow the Philippines’ lead in providing protection to its overseas workers.
But women, who comprise about 70% of the total, remain prone to exploitation, extortion and physical abuse at the hands of their employers, particularly in the sexually-repressed societies of the Middle East.
They are not immune from abuse in Asia either. In a landmark case in 2015, only a year after Widodo took office, a Hong Kong beautician was jailed for six years on 18 charges of causing grievous bodily harm to an Indonesian domestic worker she had treated as a virtual slave.
To be sure, Indonesia has a poor record itself with the National Commission on Violence Against Women recording 421 national and regional regulations which currently discriminate against women. In 2016, it says 259,159 women across the country were subject to domestic violence and rape.
Indonesia stands on shaky ground with the application of the death sentence as well. Although there have been no executions in the past two years, 44 offenders have died before a firing squad since 2000, including four women, two of them Indonesians convicted separately of murder and drug trafficking.