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23 Sep 2020 2:14
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  •   Home > News > International

    Etty spent 20 years in jail accused of killing her Saudi employer. Indonesia gave everything to save her from execution

    Three months after her employer died, his family suddenly accused Etty bint Toyib of murder. As a result, she was charged and eventually found guilty by a Saudi court, which ordered her execution. This is her story.

    When Etty bint Toyib arrived in Saudi Arabia, she — like thousands of Indonesian women in the country — found work as a housemaid.

    She cooked and cleaned, and cared for Faisal Al Ghamdi, his wife and four children — the youngest was born a week after she joined the family.

    But that all changed one day in late 2001, a year after Ms Etty began working for the family.

    It started in the usual way. Al Ghamadi had breakfast with his wife at their home in Taif. Later, he complained of feeling ill.

    According to Ms Etty, his last words to her as he left for hospital were: "Take care of the children and be careful."

    He packed his own bag and drove himself to hospital. But he never came home.

    At first doctors declared Al Ghamdi had died of natural causes.

    Ms Etty says her boss was a sickly man who'd often been ill since she had begun working for the family.

    But three months after his death, Al Ghamdi's wife suddenly accused Ms Etty of murder. She and the older children alleged the housemaid had poisoned him.

    Saudi media reports at the time claimed she had confessed to killing Al Ghamdi after he discovered she was having an affair with an Indian man who worked at a nearby shop.

    It was alleged the pair had prepared a slow-acting poison by mixing pesticides with yoghurt.

    Under the Islamic Qisas system — based on the legal principle of 'an eye for an eye' — the family exercised their right to have Ms Etty arrested and jailed.

    "There are two laws in relation to death penalty, one rights belong to the state, another one belongs to the family of the victim," foreign ministry official Fadhly Ahmad said.

    "Even the king cannot intervene on the matter. It is the rights of the family, [the] state cannot intervene … it's stated in their constitution, it's Islamic law."

    Ms Etty was charged and eventually found guilty by a Saudi court, which ordered her execution.

    Migrant workers in Indonesia facing problems in Saudi Arabia

    Ms Etty's case is far from the only one that has sparked concerns for migrant workers living in Saudi Arabia.

    Scores of Indonesian migrant workers have been jailed in the Saudi kingdom, the vast majority of them women.

    In fact, the Saudi regime's treatment of migrant workers, particularly domestic maids, has long been a cause of tension between the two countries.

    A foreign ministry official says more than 60 Indonesians remain in Saudi jails, and nine are facing the death penalty. Six Indonesians have been executed.

    In response, in 2011, Indonesia imposed a moratorium on its citizens travelling to Saudi Arabia as domestic maids.

    But thousands remain as skilled workers. Others continue to travel illegally because of the higher wages they can earn. Many others have been there since before the ban.

    Indonesia's Migrant Care organisation estimates there are around 1.5 million Indonesian workers currently in the Saudi kingdom.

    It says many are subjected to harsh working conditions, poor accommodation and abuse, including the sexual abuse of women.

    Two years ago, President Joko Widodo lodged a formal complaint after Saudi Arabia executed another Indonesian woman without notifying its diplomats or the government in Jakarta.

    The desperate bid to avoid an execution

    Ms Etty has always denied she had anything to do with her employer's death. She also says the reports suggesting she killed him over an alleged affair are "all lies".

    "How could I possibly kill him? I didn't do anything," she said.

    'Three months after he died I was dragged to prison. Didn't they check him at the hospital to see if he had health problems? Didn't they check the body for poison?"

    She says she only went to Saudi Arabia to work because she was so poor and needed the money to support her then six-year-old son, who she'd left in her family's care in Java.

    After Ms Etty was sentenced to death by beheading, Indonesia began to lobby on her behalf. Three successive presidents — including Joko Widodo — all put in pleas with authorities.

    Under the Qisas system, a death sentence can be exchanged for money — effectively a ransom, known as Diyat — if the victim's family agrees to grant a pardon.

    Indonesian officials helped raise public donations worth more than $1.5 million as a ransom and diplomats and officials opened negotiations with the regime and the man's family on her behalf.

    The Saudi court ruled to delay the execution to allow time for Al Ghamdi's children to reach adulthood.

    But Al Ghamdi's wife and three of his children rejected her pleas for a pardon.

    Ms Etty's last option was the youngest child, Abdul Azis – who was born a week after she first worked for the family in mid 2000.

    When he too reached adulthood at 18, he also refused to forgive her.

    A hefty ransom

    With few options left, Indonesian diplomats sought out another member of Al Ghamadi's family to intervene on Ms Etty's behalf.

    They eventually secured the support of Al Ghamdi's brother, who managed to convince the youngest son to agree to grant Ms Etty her freedom.

    But she would have to remain in jail until a ransom could be raised.

    The family initially asked for the equivalent of 100 billion rupiah ($10 million), but Indonesian diplomats negotiated the figure down to about 15.5 billion rupiah ($1.4 million).

    The money came from a range of sources in Indonesia, including charitable groups and one-off donations from the government of West Java and Indonesia's biggest Muslim organisation Nadhlatul Ulama.

    Once that had been secured, Ms Etty was finally released after decades of negotiations, which involved three Indonesian presidents: Megawati Sukarnoputri, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Mr Widodo.

    Ms Etty only returned to Indonesia in July, and immediately tested positive to COVID-19 as the pandemic spread rampantly through the country.

    After recovering from the coronavirus, Ms Etty was finally reunited with her family in Java last month, more than 20 years after she left her home.

    Her release is a rare success for Indonesia, which has lobbied the Saudi regime for years to improve the rights and working conditions for migrant workers.

    In fact, Ms Etty's case is not so rare.

    Tuti Tursilawati was also accused of murdering her Saudi employer, but claimed she had acted in self-defence after he had sexually abused her.

    Her execution came just a week after the Indonesian President had raised the issue of migrant worker rights with the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, during a visit to Jakarta.

    It was the fourth time that Saudi authorities had failed to give notice to Indonesia before carrying out the death penalty.

    "I knew her well, Tuti Tursilawati, we were in the same prison," Ms Etty said.

    "We ate together. Sometimes we shared a room, sometimes we had separate rooms."

    Hope for change

    Indonesian migrant workers have endured harsh treatment in many other countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

    But Saudi Arabia has been one of the biggest destinations for Indonesian maids.

    The Saudi regime is known for its harsh record on human rights. Last year it executed the highest number of prisoners in recent years, including 90 foreign nationals, according to legal charity Reprieve.

    Ms Etty has nothing but thanks for the Indonesian Government and countless officials who fought for her freedom, including Mr Widodo.

    "It feels like I had died and now I'm alive again," she said.

    Her only care now is to rebuild her life at Majalengka in West Java, and reconnect with her son, Didin Rosidin, who was only six years old when she left for Saudi Arabia. Now 26, he has a small son of his own.

    For years their only contact was a weekly phone call from jail. Much later she says the Indonesian government facilitated her son's travel to Saudi Arabia to visit her.

    "My family is so happy. I can't describe how they feel. They're so happy and grateful to everyone who helped me."

    "I pray that Allah will return their kindness abundantly."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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