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Reports: Woman gets three years for abusing Indonesian maid

By Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN
  • The employer will appeal the sentence, media reports say
  • The maid suffered cuts to her face and burns
  • A human rights official says the judgment "shows a shift" in Saudi Arabia

(CNN) -- In what some say is a first for the kingdom, a Saudi woman has been sentenced to three years in prison for abusing her Indonesian maid, according to Saudi media reports.

The woman was sentenced Sunday in Medina, the reports said. According to Saudi Arabian daily newspaper Al-Watan, the employer, who was not named, was sentenced under a new royal decree issued to combat human trafficking.

The maid, Sumiati binti Mustapha Salan, 23, was hospitalized in November after being severely beaten. At the time, a migrant rights group and Indonesian officials told CNN that she had suffered cuts to her face and was also burned, possibly with an iron. The case, which outraged many in Indonesia, also brought international attention to an issue that has repeatedly made headlines in recent months -- the abuse of migrant workers in Middle Eastern nations.

Human rights groups have expressed alarm about the poor treatment of these workers. A Human Rights Watch report last year said migrant domestic workers often face isolation and forced confinement that contribute to psychological, physical and sexual violence, forced labor and trafficking.

Christoph Wilcke, a senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, told CNN Wednesday that Sunday's sentence is the first he's heard of in Saudi Arabia for the abuse of a migrant worker -- a small step in the right direction, he said.

"I think that the reason we've had a police action, a trial, a conviction and even a prison sentence is because of the international outrage over this case," Wilcke said. "It wouldn't have necessarily taken place without such international attention to the issue. But even with international attention a few years ago, the Saudis may not have reacted at all. This shows a shift that has taken place in Saudi Arabia."

"Previously, when we have raised the issue of abuse of domestic workers, we got the standard reply of, 'There may be isolated incidents of abuse, but that most domestic workers in the kingdom are comfortable and treated well.'"

Wilcke said much more still needs to be done.

"In 2010, we are seeing some police action when it comes to the issue of abuse of domestic workers -- but what we're not seeing are actions against the violation of labor rights; working long hours, not being paid, not having a day off -- what can amount to forced labor."

Millions of workers from Asian countries travel to the Middle East to make money and shed lives in their homeland that are rooted in poverty.

Sumiati was one of them, according to the Jakarta Globe newspaper. It reported that her parents were unable to support her and her four siblings and in July, after she graduated from high school, Sumiati left for Saudi Arabia with the help of a labor recruiting agency.

In recent months, more and more instances of abuse have emerged, as they have been reported by Saudi Arabia's local media. The Saudi English-language daily Arab News noted that, in this case, "justice has been done," and said the case "may become something of a watershed."

"There have been other instances in the past of employees being physically abused. But there have been few where employers have been arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced. It may act as a deterrent in future," the newspaper said in an editorial entitled "Justice Delivered."

According to local media, Sumiati's employer plans to appeal the judgment. CNN could not reach Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Justice for comment.

Didi Wahyudi, the head of citizen protection services at the Indonesian Consulate in Jeddah, told CNN Wednesday that Indonesian officials will also appeal the judgment.

"We will work with Sumiati's lawyer to take the case to a higher court in order to get more justice," he said.

"The punishment is not strict enough, it's a very light punishment. There was more than enough evidence and there were more than enough witnesses -- more punishment should have been given," Wahyudi said.