Filipina maid's death sentence causes outrage

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The Independent Online
First the Philippines government was widely criticised at home for doing too little to save the life of a Filipina maid sentenced to death on a murder charge in Singapore. Now the government appears to have done too much by insisting on the retrial of a 16-year-old maid in the United Arab Emirates who, on Saturday, had a seven-year jail sentence transformed into one of death, probably by firing squad, following a verdict of premeditated murder.

Sarah Balabagan is a diminutive Filipina who, in her first trial, persuaded the court that she had murdered her employer, Almas Mohammed al-Baloushi, after he raped and assaulted her. The case became a cause celebre in the Philippines, encouraging President Fidel Ramos to successfully persuade the UAE head of state, Sheikh Zaid bin Sultan al-Nahayan, to order a retrial.

President Ramos said he would do everything in his power to reverse the verdict of the Islamic court which found that the earlier court decision could not stand because the allegation of rape was not connected with the murder. Saturday's verdict also overturns a compensation award for the rape that was to have been paid to Ms Balabagan.

Ms Balabagan was reported yesterday to be in good spirits and expressing hope that she would be pardoned, according to Philippines embassy officials who visited her in prison in the oasis town of Al-Ain. On Saturday, she was led sobbing from the court that rejected her plea that she stabbed him 34 times in self-defence.

The maid's lawyer, Mohammed al-Amin, said he could file an appeal as early as today and planned to prove that she was raped. ``The retrial court said she was not raped but it did not produce a motive for the killing whatsoever,'' he said. ``She is innocent.''

The death sentence is prompting widespread outrage in the Philippines. A statement from the Friends of Filipino Migrant Workers said: ``If this is not the height of barbarism and a clear miscarriage of justice, we don't know what else to call it.'' The death sentence has led to renewed calls for the banning of overseas work by Filipinos. The same call was heard when the maid Flor Contemplacion was hanged in Singapore earlier this year, following a double-murder charge.

However the estimated 3.5 million to 4.5 million Filipinos who work abroad underpin the survival of families throughout their country. Last year their remittances contributed almost $3bn (pounds 1.9bn) to the nation's foreign currency earnings. It is inconceivable that the government would wish to cut off this source of revenue.

Nevertheless feelings are running high about the ill treatment of the 156,000 Filipinos employed in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf where there are routine reports of young female workers being subjected to rape by their employers.

Counterbalancing public pressure for action against the UAE, President Ramos has to consider the excruciating embarrassment which followed government protests to Singapore over the Contemplacion case. These protests pushed the Philippines to the brink of severing diplomatic relations.However in July, the government accepted forensic evidence produced by American experts, supposedly demolishing the case for the hanged woman's innocence.

In the Balabagan case, the government is trying to work through the UAE's appeals procedure, without threats of diplomatic retaliation.