A child named Sarah

Sarah Balabagan is only 16 years old.  By the standards of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, she is just a child.  By the norms of the majority in the civilized world, 150 countries that have ratified that Convention, she should not be in a regular prison, let alone sentenced to death  — even if found guilty.

A Shariah court has found her guilty of premeditated murder.  Sarah has never denied that she killed her employer, Almas Mohammed al-Baloushi. No other motive for the murder has been presented, except the one that the United Arab Emirates Court has refused to acknowledge — self-defense.  The judges reportedly reasoned that if she was simply defending herself against her rapist, why did she have to stab him 34 times?  The act must have been premeditated.

What absurdity!  We know that the laws of other nations have their idiosyncrasies, but in all cultures, reason is always supposed to guide justice. I wonder how many stab wounds on a  rapist’s body would be acceptable as reasonable self-defense?   The Arab judges must have been operating under some such notion, because if they didn’t, it would be banal to draw the dividing line between self-defense and premeditated murder on the basis of the number of stab wounds found.

If Sarah had planned her employer’s death, reason might have instructed her to do it methodically, with two or three well-aimed thrusts of the knife, instead of the inefficient expenditure of effort suggested by 34 stab wounds. In fact, the latter indicates a panic situation governed by nothing more than the basic will to live.  But even if  resentment and anger on Sarah’s part were established, such reaction would still have been perfectly reasonable for anyone in her situation in any culture.  I do not think that Islamic justice would have looked at the matter differently.

How then should we understand the recent judgment on Sarah?  Some government people have suggested that the protest burning of the United Arab Emirates flag by retired police officer Afuang might have turned the judges against Sarah.  Maybe.  But this seems so shamelessly capricious.  In any case,   a commensurate apology or explanation promptly issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs would have repaired any injury caused by this private act of one Filipino national.

It is more likely that a new theory of the killing  surfaced in the retrial, one that separates in time the act of murder from the rape, if such indeed took place.  (The doctors could not seem to agree.)  This could be the reason the testimony of the Arab recruiter became crucial.   This person, Mahmoud AlFarah,  testified that Sarah had gone to him many times before to complain about inadequate food and terrible accommodation but never about any sexual advances by her employer.

Even so, it would be wrong for us to maintain a respectful and acquiescent silence in the face of this judgment.  As one of the early signatories of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, our government  should send a distress signal to every corner of the civilized world on behalf of a threatened Filipino child.  Even if the UAE is not a signatory to the Convention,  the Philippines has the duty to mobilize the other 149 countries that have signed that accord to bring pressure upon another member-nation of the United Nations.

When UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan ordered the retrial of Sarah’s case on July 31 this year, the impression given was that this was a response to President Ramos’s   appeal for clemency for the Filipino girl. This conditioned the public to expect an outright acquittal or at least  a reduction of the jail term and fine earlier imposed.  Nothing prepared Sarah or the Filipino people for the passing of a sentence of execution.

It now appears that the order of retrial, far from being a show of respect for a friendly government,  was nothing but  an accommodation to the dead man’s family.  If this view is correct, it should induce an examination by our government of the current value of its diplomatic interventions.  Does a diplomatic letter from the Philippine president still carry any weight in the community of nations?  Not so long ago, the Singaporean government showed us what a piece of paper from Malacanang meant to Singapore: nothing more than a piece of paper.  In reaction, we decided to downgrade our embassy in Singapore.

But the more important point is that at home we seem to be doing everything to deserve the contempt rather than  earn the respect of other nations.  We have allowed illegal recruiters to operate with impunity.  We have permitted the misuse of our passports so that even children could be sent abroad to work as domestics.

The impression we project abroad is that the government profits too much from the continuous deployment of its workers to seriously care about the problems they encounter in the receiving countries.  Not a few nations that have granted us aid think that we don’t try hard enough to solve the problem of poverty and inequality in our country because we seem quite content with dumping our unemployed millions on the rest of the world.

The Philippines is not the first country to send its labor force abroad.  Japan and Korea, Spain and Italy had been there before us.  But the big difference is that these countries did not make a permanent industry out of exporting the brains and brawn of their people.  For them it was a stop-gap measure, lasting no more than 15 years on the average, just to hurdle a difficult phase in their history.  Whereas we have been at it continously and in growing numbers almost from the time we first began to imagine ourselves a nation.


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