Filipina maid sentenced to death

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THERE was disbelief and shock in the Philippines yesterday when it was learned that an Islamic court in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had passed a death sentence on the 16-year-old Filipina maid Sarah Balabagan.

She is regarded as a national heroine in her home country after an earlier trial found she had been raped by her employer Mohammed al-Baloushi, whom she stabbed to death.

The verdict was all the more unexpected because it came following a retrial held at the request of Philippines President Fidel Ramos, who successfully persuaded UAE President Zayed Ibn Sultan al-Nahayan to annul the first trial, at which she was given a seven-year jail sentence.

Reuben Torres, President Ramos's chief of staff, said he was shocked by the new verdict. "We want to know what really happened - what is the basis of the decision," he said yesterday.

The trial cast doubt on whether Miss Balabagan had been raped. Ahmed al-Tatwani, the head of the three-judge panel which tried the case, told reporters that they had found no linkage between the "sexual advance" and the killing. At the first trial the court heard medical evidence concluding that she had been raped, and wounded in both the neck and the vagina.

Miss Balabagan's lawyers say they will appeal against the sentence. Feeling about the case is running high in the Philippines and among the 156,000 Filipino migrant workers who are estimated to be working in the UAE.

The turnaround in the court verdict is also very damaging to President Ramos, who is immersed in a messy battle with the Senate following the ousting of its president, Edgardo Angara, allegedly at the instigation of Ramos. He had been hoping that his swift intervention in the Balabagan case would help dispel some of the embarrassment suffered when another maid, Flor Contemplacion, was hanged for murder in Singapore.

The Contemplacion case almost led to the severing of diplomatic relations with Singapore. Allegations of indifference to the plight of migrant workers caused cabinet and diplomatic heads to role in the wake of Miss Contemplacion's hanging.

There was near-universal belief in the Philippines that she was innocent, a finding endorsed by a presidential commission last April. Three months later, following an independent American forensic report, the Philippine government quietly let it be known that it accepted the Singapore court's verdict.

The case of the teenage Miss Balabagan is different. She admits the murder and pleaded that she was acting in self-defence. Her plea was partially accepted at the first trial after she was awarded 100,000 dirhams (pounds 17,000) in compensation for the rape, although she was also told to pay the family of the deceased 150,000 dirhams. Had President Ramos not intervened, Miss Balabagan, a rather distraught and confused teenager, would be sitting in jail, instead of facing the death penalty.