Condemned to death by prejudice and politics, a Filipino maid awaits her fate Condemned by prejudice and politics a Filipino faces death in UAE jail

Decision fuels belief that Sharia law is merciless and medieval; Filipino women speak constantly of beatings and sexual abuse

EVEN THE Arab prison warders like Sarah Balabagan. The Philippine embassy staff who are trying to save the 16-year old housemaid from execution before an Emirates firing squad have drawn hope from the affection that both prison officers and fellow prisoners show for the condemned girl in the Al-Ain jail. "They are very kind to her and I think she is prepared for the appeal hearing," one of the diplomats said. "Sometimes she has cried but she smiled when she last saw us. The warders all tell her not to worry, that she will not be put to death."

Sarah Balabagan may have been convicted of murder, but she appears to be a very brave girl. She will have to be when she faces her appeals court tomorrow morning.

Condemned to death for killing Almas al-Baloushi, her elderly Emirates employer - she says she stabbed him 34 times as he tried to rape her two years ago - it has been Sarah's fate to have become trapped by some of the rawest cultural prejudices and political sensitivities in both her own country and Abu Dhabi, the richest and most powerful of the six United Arab Emirates.

In a Gulf nation where Filipinos are regularly denigrated as thieves and potential murderers - Sharouq, a local news magazine, last week described Filipino maids as a "minefield" among Arab families, and Balabagan herself as a justly convicted "killer" - her sentence has enraged an 80,000-strong Filipino community whose women are constantly complaining of beatings and sexual abuse by their Arab employers. Politically, too, Sarah's sentence of death is dynamite.

President Ramos of the Philippines, still suffering the fallout from his government's failure to save the life of Flor Contemplacion - the maid hanged for allegedly murdering a child in Singapore and whose execution forced the resignation of the Philippine foreign minister - has quietly appealed to the Emirates government for a pardon. But President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan is anxious to demonstrate that his emirate of Abu Dhabi will not tolerate serious crime at a time of growing insecurity in the Gulf area - and that his courts, which follow Islamic Sharia law, will deal firmly with the murder of its citizens.

Indeed, it was Sheikh Zayed who ordered Sarah Balabagan to be retried after the Al-Ain court had originally sentenced her to seven years for manslaughter, awarding her compensation for rape by her employer. Frail but clearly very pretty beneath her black-and-gold headscarf, it is already clear that the Filipino maid was only 14 when she stabbed Almas al-Baloushi. Again, however, she has found herself trapped, this time by the very identity papers which she used to travel to the Emirates two years ago.

Her own Philippine employment agency, it seems, falsified her documents to give her date of birth as 1966 - because Emirates law says that female employees must be at least 25 years old. Despite the fact that her physical appearance proves she cannot possibly be 29, the Moroccan judge who heads the Sharia court at Al-Ain, Sheikh Ahmed al-Titwani, chose to accept the false age given in her identity papers.

Sarah Balabagan committed her murder when she was an adult, the judge announced, because "we have evidence that Sarah is more than 21 years old and is not 16 as she claimed". The death sentence, he said, must therefore be carried out.

His decision has only helped to fuel the belief among Filipinos and many other foreign residents that adherents of Sharia law are both merciless and medieval in outlook - which is not the impression which Sheikh Zayed wishes to give of his gleaming and super-rich emirate. The girl's original court hearing, however, provided evidence enough of mistreatment at al- Baloushi's hands. One witness described how she was given so little food by her employer that she was forced to beg meals from neighbours. Her lawyer stated that the employment agent's secretary - who has since left the country - had described how the girl complained to her a week before the murder of al-Baloushi's sexual harassment.

Although Balabagan remained a virgin, the court agreed that the elderly man - her lawyer claimed he was 55, his family said he was in his eighties - had tried to rape her. "I'm innocent and I want to be freed because I was only defending my honour," the girl told the second court. "This man was taking it away from me." Talking to local reporters before the hearing, she said that her agent had supported al-Baloushi in his attempted seduction. "He told me that if the old man asked me for a kiss, I should give him one. When I refused to do that, [the agent] locked me up in a goat pen."

After the initial hearing, she was ordered to pay pounds 27,000 "blood money" to the al-Baloushi family - and to receive pounds 18,000 in compensation from the family for the attempted rape. This, along with her seven-year sentence, was what prompted Sheikh Zayed to order a retrial. Outraged by the furore which the death sentence inevitably created, the Abu Dhabi justice ministry responded with a statement which only served to infuriate Sarah Balabagan's supporters, defending Sheikh Zayed's decision to protect the "stability, tranquillity and decent life" of his citizens "with a strong hand against anyone who harms security. . . The defendant is 27 (sic) years old as is verified in her passport and other official documents. She is not a teenager as the media in her country has claimed."

Even if her death sentence is confirmed by the appeals court, the emirate's "strong hand" can still be restrained by the supreme court. But if this august institution upholds Judge Titwani's sentence, the only figure who can prevent the 16-year old maid being dragged before a firing squad will be the man who was so dissatisfied with the original and milder sentence: Sheikh Zayed himself.

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