A DEATH sentenced handed down to a teenage Filipina maid who killed her employer after being raped is generating outrage in her homeland and highlighting the treatment of thousands of foreign workers in the United Arab Emirates.
A court in the UAE, a small Arab state on the Persian Gulf, threw out a claim by Sarah Balabagan that she stabbed her employer 34 times in self-defense when he raped her last year.
Astonishment and rage spread among Filipinos here when an Islamic court condemned Ms. Balabagan to death Sept. 16 for the murder of her Arab employer. Her lawyer has filed an appeal.
UAE President Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al-Nuhayyan ordered a retrial after the same court had earlier convicted Balabagan only of manslaughter and sentenced her to seven years. It also had awarded her $40,000 after ruling that she had been raped.
The local Filipino community is convinced that Balabagan is innocent. "The message it sends to us and to the people we work for," said one Filipina maid here, "is that Filipinas cannot expect justice here. It can encourage other [employers] to do the same."
On Sept. 19 Philippines officials said they would send a high-level mission to the UAE with orders from President Fidel Ramos "to do all you can to save" Balabagan from execution, the Reuters news agency reported.
The case has highlighted the plight of Filipino domestic workers overseas. Many maids are exploited by unscrupulous recruiters in the Philippines and then mistreated by employers overseas.
Balabagan has received hundreds of letters from supporters back home. Filipinos from around the UAE visit her regularly in prison where she has spent the last 14 months.
OFFICIALS in Manila are trying to calm the furor over her verdict. They fear that a death sentence could provoke the same anger that erupted after Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion was hanged after being convicted of murder in Singapore in March. Most Filipinos felt that she had been framed.
A presidential commission was sent to the Gulf during Balabagan's first trial. After hearing of widespread abuses, it recommended that Filipina maids not be allowed to work in the region. That call is now being revived.
But until then, the tens of thousands of workers who remain in the region are disheartened by Balabagan's fate. "If this verdict is carried out on Sarah," said one Filipina woman, "What hope is there for any Filipina maid in the Gulf?