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Death Sentence Looms for Filipino Drug Mules in China

Kara Santos

MANILA, Mar 28 2011 (IPS) - Time is running short for three Filipino workers in China. Ramon Credo, Elizabeth Batain and Sally Villanueva – who were convicted of smuggling heroin in 2008 – are set to be executed by lethal injection Mar. 30.

A woman holds up pictures of the three OFWs on death row in China during a protest action in Manila. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

A woman holds up pictures of the three OFWs on death row in China during a protest action in Manila. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced that the Fujian People’s Court and Guangdong High People’s Court have informed the Philippine Consulates General in Xiamen and Guangzhou of the date of execution. Foreign Affairs Department Spokesman Eduardo Malaya told reporters that Credo and Villanueva would be executed in Xiamen while Batain’s sentence would be carried out in Shenzhen.

As the date nears, the global alliance of overseas workers and their families – Migrante International – said it would continue to appeal to the Chinese government to commute the death sentences on humanitarian grounds and stop the execution of the three Filipinos.

According to Amnesty International (AI) a significant proportion of the executions or death sentences recorded in 2010 were for drug-related offences – at times in direct contradiction of international human rights law. AI stressed that a total of 31 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice during the last 10 years but China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Yemen remain amongst the most frequent executioners.

According to Migrante International Chairperson Garry Martinez, like many other Filipinos, the three facing death row are either victims of international drug syndicates, or victims of poverty and hopelessness.

“Most, if not all, drug mules are either overseas Filipino workers [OFWs] in distress or victims of illegal recruitment or human trafficking. Even [Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency] chief Dionisio Santiago confirmed this when he said that those desperate for money are the ones victimised by international drug syndicates,” Martinez told IPS.

Martinez claims that the Philippine government did not do enough to help the three and remained resigned to the fact that China has a strict policy in carrying out the death penalty for drug smuggling.

“We respect the laws of the land our countrymen work in, but what we want is for our government to give legal assistance to overseas workers in times of need,” Martinez said on the sidelines of a protest rally for the three sentenced to death. “In our experience, we have seen so many fellow countrymen executed and given life sentences without ever even seeing a lawyer.”

During the rally, a dozen supporters carried banners and held up pictures of the three Filipinos while chanting: “Save the lives of OFWs on death row.” A large makeshift hourglass filled with sand signified how time was running out for the three, and supporters lit candles in hopes that their lives would still be spared.

According to Martinez, there are currently 125 Filipinos on death row around the world. In China alone, there are 208 Filipinos with drug-related cases – 72 of these face death sentences, but could still face reprieve within two years.

The government does not provide legal assistance to OFWs in foreign countries, Grace, a former overseas worker who declined to give her last name, told IPS. “Migrant workers are the ones who are saving the economy from crisis through their remittances, but when they need help, the government does not offer them any assistance.”

One tenth of the country’s population works abroad, from where, according to central bank data, they send home more than 18 billion dollars to their families.

“As soon as my pending case is settled, I plan to go back and find work in Taiwan because there are really no opportunities or fair wages here in our country. Even if it hurts to leave my family, I have to force myself to work abroad just so that I can give them a better life,” Grace told IPS.

In a press statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said that the Philippine government provided all possible legal assistance to the three convicted drug mules, but said it has to respect the ruling of the Supreme People’s Court of China. “Their legal rights were respected and observed, and their welfare protected from the time of their arrests and throughout the judicial process, and even up to this very day,” according to the DFA.

The department stressed its appeal to Filipinos not to allow themselves to be victimised by international drug syndicates and to be extremely cautious when dealing with strangers in airports and other areas of transit. “We wish to stress that vigilance is the first major step in combating the modus operandi of international drug traffickers.”

While some overseas workers are victimised by drug syndicates, poverty is seen as the main reason why others resort to desperate measures like drug trafficking to make ends meet.

One in four Filipinos live on less than one dollar a day. According to news reports, drug mules or couriers are paid anywhere between 500 and 5,000 dollars to swallow tubes containing drugs, carry them hidden in their luggage or dissolved and soaked into paper or books.

“If only our Philippine authorities have been more watchful over the plight of Filipinos here and abroad and have provided them much-needed assistance, they would not be forced to engage with drug syndicates,” says Martinez. “Instead of dousing their hopes, give them protection.”

As Grace puts it: “Migrant workers send billions of remittances home every year. If only the government would use it for developing industries here, then people will not be forced to leave the country in search for better jobs.”

Migrante, including chapters in the Middle East, plan to hold daily actions including vigils and rallies for all Filipinos on death row. “Unlike the government, we are not losing hope,” says Martinez. “While there is still time, let us press the government to use it to exhaust any and all means to save the lives of Villanueva, Batain and Credo.”

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