Zamzam Abdullah’s beheading: Saudi Arabia won’t clean up its act and Ethiopia couldn’t care less

Tuesday November 22nd 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem

Hooded and hands bound together, the condemned awaits his/her long anticipated execution. By this time, all legal avenues of overturning the execution have been exhausted and appeal after appeal have only served to delay the fateful day. But it finally dawns on that day and the condemned concedes that his/her fate is sealed. Around midday, security officers walk the condemned onward to a public square where hundreds, perhaps thousands of onlookers, some jeering the condemned, others laughing it up in what would appear to be a festive atmosphere, await the act that will end this individual’s life. For many of them, it’s a spectacle, a bemusing one at that. Unable to see with the blindfold on, the fever pitch level of anxiety that has left the condemned, despondent, inconsolable and mentally defeated over the past few days escalates tenfold upon realisation that it’s time to be put to death. According to people who have witnessed the gory spectacle, the condemned sometimes lets out a scream for help or weeps uncontrollably right about now.  After the condemned is forced to kneel at a spot in the center that would best accommodate the viewing masses, the executioner unsheathes his blade. The nearly one meter long beast, curved at the end and neatly sharpened, emerges gleaming in the city limelight, much to the pleasure of the assembled crowd, who whoop with delight. The condemned is told he or she can have one last moment to pray in repentance to obtain divine salvation. Afterwards, the signal is given and the sword comes down and slices the head from the body, often with one single clean blow. The condemned is pronounced dead. The executioner begins polishing his blood drenched sword. Another routine day’s work is done.

The executioner just prior to letting his blade slice through the neck of a condemned man, somewhere in Saudi Arabia. Such scenes have become so common, it was estimated that in 2015, one person would be beheaded every two days (Image: AP)

This is capital punishment in Saudi Arabia, a country whose judicial system is something out of a medieval folk tale. Public beheadings are given out as punishments for anyone declared guilty of murder, drug trafficking, rape but even marriage infidelity and sorcery. Saudi Arabia adopts a hard line interpretation of the Sharia law, which also includes punishments such as amputation of limbs for theft. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has long been criticized by rights groups and activists for their maintaining of such antiquated practices, but nothing in Riyadh indicates any plan for a change in the status quo any time soon.

On September 26th, of this year, about two months ago now, Saudi Arabia carried out the country’s 124th execution of 2016, in the manner described above. The condemned, 29 year old Zamzam Abdullah, was an Ethiopian woman found guilty by a Saudi court of having murdered the 6 year old daughter of her employer at their home back in June of 2013. Three years after the act, Zamzam was brought in public before the blade and beheaded.

Undated photo shows Zamzam Abdullah in custody. She would later be executed


The murder of 6 year old Lamees Bint Muhammed Al Salman was widely reported in local media, and caused great outrage in Saudi Arabia. Many believe that the murder partially fueled a xenophobic uprising in November of 2013 that saw rampant killings and rapes of documented and undocumented Ethiopian migrants by Saudi lynch mobs. Ethiopia was forced to repatriate around 100,000 of its citizens following the violent episode.

However, three years after the crime and two months after Zamzam Abdullah’s execution, there are is still no background information about the horrific crime, nor are there any details about the trial. All we know is that a judge announced the death sentence in December of 2013, some six months or so after the crime was committed and that the judge had given Zamzam thirty days to appeal her sentence. Just under three years later, the sentence was carried out.

A major factor for the details surrounding the murder and the trial remaining for the most part unearthed, is the fact that Zamzam, an Ethiopian citizen, is not known to have received any sort of consular support or legal advice from anyone at her country’s embassy. Other foreign nationals tend to depend on assistance from their governments when faced with the prospect of public execution.

Ethiopian embassy compound in Riyadh. The safety and well being of the large Ethiopian community in Saudi Arabia doesn’t make the front desk here (Image: Google)

Unlike in Zamzam’s case, the cases of many condemned foreign nationals in Saudi Arabia have received widespread publicity because of the lobbying of their respective governments. In 2005, a Saudi court sentenced Sri Lankan Rizana Nafeek to death for allegedly murdering a toddler. Politicians in Sri Lankan government condemned the sentencing and criticized the process. Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa repeatedly called for the death sentence to be cancelled and focused on reconciliatory efforts with the bereaved family. In 2013, Nafeek was publicly beheaded, and Sri Lanka recalled its ambassador in protest.

In 2014, the Indonesian government decided to pay 1.8 million dollars in “blood money” to spare the life of a citizen, Satinah Binti Jumadi Ahmad, who had also been scheduled to die. Although weeks later, they would summon the Saudi ambassador to their country to demand an explanation after the execution of another Indonesian citizen, Karni Medi Tarsim, went ahead as scheduled despite the Indonesian government’s protests and letters to Saudi authorities.

Ethiopians detained in the kingdom however, are rarely if ever assisted by their country’s authorities. This despite credible reports of countless Ethiopians being held under charges ranging from murder, to the possession of a Bible in their homes.

In December of 2011, 35 Ethiopians were arrested at a home in the city of Jeddah for holding a Christian prayer session. 29 members of the group were women. The group spent the next seven months in prison being beaten and sexually abused. Their plight was documented in an annual report released by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Prison officials also tried to force the group to convert to Islam and threatened them with death. The American Christian rights advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC), lobbied for the release of the Ethiopians arrested for practicing their faith in the privacy of their own home. Upon release, the 35 were immediately deported back to Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, one of the formerly detained men spoke candidly about how he and his comrades were able to regain their freedom. “We have arrived home safe. We believe that we are released as a result of the pressure exerted by the ICC and others.” The ICC, an American Christian rights group’s efforts were key to securing the release of the detained Ethiopians. None of the detained men or women ever spoke of any support from Ethiopian authorities.

Images of 16 of the Ethiopian Christians who spent seven months between December 2011 and July 2012 languishing in a Saudi jail. (Image: Church in Chains)

In 2012, Voice of America (VOA) managed to do a report on Ethiopian prisoners detained in the Saudi city of Jazan which is near the Yemeni border and some 1000 km south west of Riyadh. According to their report, 1,700 Ethiopians were being held at prisons in Jazan, and prisoners told VOA that eight Ethiopian prisoners had died in detention of malaria and other treatable diseases. The majority of the prisoners are undocumented migrants who were trying to enter the kingdom. Addis Ababa has taken no steps to secure their freedom, nor investigate the claims that a number of its citizens have died behind bars in Jazan.

The government in Ethiopia’s standard practice is to turn a blind eye to the torment their citizens face at the hands of a ruthless, unforgiving Saudi justice system. This means that Ethiopians are forced to count on their wits and nothing else to get them through the highly discriminatory judicial procedures that have been discredited by international human rights groups. Thirty four months elapsed between Zamzam Abdullah’s sentencing and her beheading. In all that time, nobody from Ethiopia with any diplomatic clout stood up for her, nobody from the embassy was assigned to follow the developments in her case. Her government appeared to see her as a liability and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say she was left to the wolves. Totally abandoned, there would be no guarantee of her getting a fair trial, a competent lawyer to represent her, visitation rights or even a thorough examination of her mental state to determine if she was fit to stand trial. Nobody in the Saudi justice system would feel pressured to ensure her rights were protected. For all we know, Zamzam may have even been the victim of a massive miscarriage of justice and there would be no way of verifying this.

Saudi Arabia’s media highlighted the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the killing of the six year old girl, Zamzam was still in the vicinity of the home, clutching a knife. Apparently not willing to go down without a fight, police officers had to forcibly restrain her, according to several Saudi publications.

The barbaric nature of the crime isn’t in question. There is no justifying the murder of a child. However, what Saudi Arabia tends to ignore is that reports of maids killing their employers or family members of their employers are fairly regular. If anything it suggests that there’s a culture of tolerated and systematic abuse of maids from foreign countries. Zamzam Abdullah pled guilty to the charge of murder. Since her arrest, the one statement Zamzam has made that has reached the outside world is that she acted out in revenge of severe abuses committed against her by the girl’s parents.

indian mother.png
The mother of Asima Khatoon, a 25 year old Indian woman who worked as a maid in Saudi Arabia, holds an image of her daughter. Khatoon was reportedly tortured to death by her employers in May of 2016 (Image: New York Times)
Sri Lanka Saudi Maid
Angry Sri Lankan protesters demand Saudi Arabia issue a pardon for a Sri Lankan woman scheduled to be beheaded (Image: Al Jazeera)

Saudi Arabia is one of several Gulf States to maintain the implementation of the “Kafala” system. In the Kafala system, a Saudi national has the obligation of monitoring foreign workers under his/her employment and be in charge of their employee’s visa and legal status. The system has been described as a modern day form of slavery. Saudi employers tend to withhold the travel or identity documents of their workers. Virtually held hostage, the foreign worker is helpless when overworked and/or deprived of pay. The system facilitates the widespread exploitation and abuse of maids in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are subjected to indescribable horrors. With no legal rights and trapped by their employers, these maids, most of them originating from poverty stricken countries in Asia and Africa, will sometimes endure years of constant abuse, leaving them traumatized, mentally unstable and contemplating suicide. Others are murdered.

In 2013, Amnesty International reported that at least 50 foreign maids were on death row in Saudi Arabia. Fifty women, like Zamzam Abdullah, who travelled to the kingdom for work only to end up being convicted of murder. The majority according to the report, were women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines. The frequent reports of abused or murdered foreign maids tend to be of unfortunate women coming from one of these four countries.

But Saudi media has for the most part refused to accept that there is a culture of slavery and abuse that is no doubt contributing to the steady climb in “maid killings.”

In their coverage of Zamzam Abdullah’s execution, the Saudi Gazette reported that earlier this year, a coalition of Saudi women had lobbied the education minister to open nurseries and daycares in schools. This according to the women, would be an institutional step to protect children from the risk of staying at home with maids. The report explicitly associates the problem with the foreigner maids, depicting them as predatory and unpredictable.

Mohammed Al Salman, father of the murdered girl, expressed his sorrow on the social media website Twitter. Posting a picture of his daughter, he wrote “this is my Lamees, I was overjoyed when she was born, carrying her around.” According to Gulf News, Twitter users were compassionate and offered support, but several criticized his leaving his daughter with a “total stranger.” Gulf News did not mention if anyone questioned the father for the alleged abusive treatment the “total stranger” claimed he meted out against her. Another commenter on the Saudi Arabia based Arab News website called for maids to undergo psychiatric evaluations before entering the country.

The way Zamzam Abdullah’s execution was reported shows that Saudis to some extent are in a state of denial, choosing to lament the adrenaline fueled killings committed by foreign maids and refusing to dig at the root of the epidemic. This in part has prevented Saudi Arabia from confronting and exorcising what have long been the country’s societal demons.

Having travelled to the kingdom to improve her fortunes and perhaps those of her family, Zamzam Abdullah appears to have suffered the relentless abusive so many of her peers before and after her have been subjected to. Like the Ethiopian maids before her, her pain and suffering was ignored not only by Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative and patriarchal society, but also by the government in Ethiopia. Despite their claims to be acting in the best interests of Ethiopian citizens everywhere, Zamzam Abdullah’s was left to fend for herself throughout her thirty four month ordeal in a Saudi court.

Zamzam Abdullah awaiting her execution

Who was Zamzam Abdullah? Where in Ethiopia was she born? How long had she been in Saudi Arabia? For how much of that time did she suffer abuse at the hands of her employers? How has her family been coping with the news of her death? Has the body been delivered to Ethiopia? Questions that remain unanswered due to her nation’s refusal to pursue the matter. Only two images of Zamzam have surfaced since her arrest. In one of them released a few months after her death sentence was announced, she is handcuffed to her seat, looks frail and absolutely crestfallen. The loneliness of the last few years of her life, from the abusive environment of her workplace, to her solitary struggle in court had no doubt taken a toll on her.

The oath of silence sworn to by Ethiopian authorities and their embassy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when reports of Ethiopians being detained, abused or committing suicide surface, has undoubtedly contributed to the predicament so many young aspiring Ethiopians in that country find themselves in. The government in Ethiopia proudly boasts of diaspora remittances when they are used to invest in the country and contribute to the country’s economic growth. It might not publicly admit it, but it knows of the crucial role played by Ethiopian maids in Ethiopian society, as many in the country live off of the earnings of their relatives employed as domestic workers abroad. But these domestic workers, at the slightest of difficulties they encounter, they are on their own. The country’s rulers have maintained the same stance; it will not intervene in any capacity to make life easier for them.

Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn is currently on a state visit to Saudi Arabia. Here he is greeted by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Naif upon arrival in the country last Sunday. It is highly unlikely that the Ethiopian leader will bring up the topic of Zamzam Abdullah during his stay in the country (Image: Arab News)
The government of Ambassador Wubshet Demise hasn’t tasked him with looking into the endless reports of abuses committed against Ethiopian nationals in the kingdom (Image: Saudi Gazette)


With no official outcry over Zamzam Abdullah’s execution, Ethiopia continued with its systematic devaluation of its own nationals. Prioritizing their diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, it prefers to sidestep walking into contentious issues, no matter how disturbing and distressing the plight of Ethiopians in the country may become. Even Ethiopians who have been killed at the hands of Saudis outside of Saudi borders haven’t been worth a peep as of yet. On March 30th of 2015, a Saudi airstrike on a refugee camp in Yemen killed 45 people, most of whom were believed to be Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somalian refugees. A couple of months after that tragedy, another Saudi shelling operation of a refugee camp cost the lives of five Ethiopian refugees. Noone has come to the defense of the Ethiopian migrants obliterated by the Saudi airforce in Yemen, like Zamzam, they too appear to be viewed as a liability.

This month marked three years since the November 2013, xenophobic uprising against Ethiopian migrants in the kingdom. The violence provoked the ire of Ethiopians at home and abroad, with the diaspora holding demonstrations outside Saudi embassies and consulate offices across much of the western world. At the Saudi embassy in Addis Ababa however, a planned protest was violently dispersed by police. 

Protests by Ethiopians in the diaspora were held in major western capitals throughout November 2013 to denounce the violent crackdown against Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia. This one was held in London (Image: Guy Smallman)
A rally planned to be held outside the Saudi embassy in Addis Ababa ended prematurely as government forces beat, arrested and chased away would be protesters (Image: Deutsche Welle)

At times, it can be positively mind boggling when one notices how the state of mind of Ethiopia’s decision makers can completely contrast with that of the people they claim to be serving.

After all, it was at what was supposed to be the height of Ethiopian Saudi tensions, some three years ago, that an AFP reporter asked the then Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti to describe the state of relations between the two countries, amidst the violence.

“Sisterly,” said Dina Mufti, conforming to protocol.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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