Fleeing poverty, migrant workers end up on death row

SPECIAL REPORT: In the Philippines, dollar remittances from migrants accounted for nearly a tenth of the $280-billion economy last year, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). Indonesia’s BNP2TKI said the overseas remittances by Indonesian migrant workers amounted to Rp 88.6 trillion ($7.35 billion) during the period of January to December 2013. Despite this, however, migrant workers from both countries are not getting the protection and assistance they need in times of distress.

Related story: Life after escaping death

By RONALYN V. OLEA (Bulatlat.com), ELLY BURHAINI FAIZAL (The Jakarta Post) and PAOLO MONTECILLO (Philippine Daily Inquirer)

Melody Cortez hurriedly charged her cellphone as she arrived home in San Pablo, Guagua, Pampanga at around 2 p.m. on June 13, 2007. She had not even taken off her shoes as she sat on a monobloc chair. She had missed several calls from an unknown number and when her phone rang again, she answered it right away.

“Your husband is gone,” the voice at the other end told her. The call was from an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Shocked, she did not move for a few minutes. Reynaldo left her and their six children behind.

That very morning, and on the previous day, Cortez had gone to the DFA to inquire about the case of her husband, Reynaldo Cortez. He had spent the last five years on death row in a Saudi Arabian jail for killing a Pakistani national in May 2002. The DFA officials repeatedly told her that they had no update on Reynaldo’s case.

“All my efforts were put to waste. All their [government’s] promises were broken,” Cortez, 44, recalled as she sat on the same spot where she received the tragic news some seven years ago.

Een Nuraini, 38, daughter of Ruyatibinti Satubi, an Indonesian migrant worker executed in Saudi Arabia on June 18, 2011. (Photo by Elly Burhaini Faizal)
Een Nuraini, 38, daughter of Ruyatibinti Satubi, an Indonesian migrant worker executed in Saudi Arabia on June 18, 2011. (Photo by Elly Burhaini Faizal)

Miles away, in Sukatani, Bekasi regency, West Java, Indonesia, Een Nuraini, 38, also recalls when she got news she had always dreaded. On June 18, 2011, Een received a call from an official of the NGO Migrant Care informing her that her mother, Ruyati binti Satubi, had been executed. Ruyati was accused of killing her female employer in Saudi Arabia.

The following morning, Foreign Ministry director for legal aid and protection of Indonesian nationals overseas, Tatang Budie Utama Razak, called up Een to extend the Indonesian government’s sincere condolences. The ministry official added that the Indonesian government felt betrayed for not being informed by the Saudi Arabian authorities on the execution of Ruyati.

“How come? We had submitted our report to the government since the very beginning but it was the government that had been clumsy in responding to the case,” Een said.

Reynaldo and Ruyati are but two of hundreds of migrant workers on death row. According to the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI), there are 280 Indonesian migrant workers involved in crimes that impose a maximum penalty of death execution in five countries. Meanwhile, 108 Filipino migrant workers are on death row in six countries, according to the DFA’s Status of OFWs report submitted to the Senate in June 2013. The families of these migrant workers said their governments are not doing enough to save their loved ones.

Timeline-of-Reynaldo-Cortez

Slow response

In the case of Ruyati, Een said that when she learned of her mother’s arrest and detention in January 2010, she filed a report with several Indonesian government bodies, including the BNP2TKI, the Manpower and Transmigration Agency, and the Foreign Ministry.

In February 2010, Een received a letter from the Foreign Ministry, confirming that her mother was accused of killing her employer and that Ruyati’s first trial was scheduled for April 2010.

Then silence.

In January 2011, Een submitted a second report to the Foreign Ministry and other institutions. She was told to write another letter about the legal problems her mother was facing.

Een said she saw a ray of hope when she was able to talk to the children of her mother’s employer several times. They told her that they had forgiven Ruyati and that they were convinced that Ruyati was actually not guilty of killing their mother.

“They said they had surrendered the case to the Saudi police and government; so, it was in the hands of the Indonesian government to handle the case directly with their country’s government authorities. To me, it was just one more step left to see my mom return home safely; but it was the government’s clumsiness that had ruined everything,” Een said.

An investigation conducted by Migrant Care in August 2011 revealed that the Indonesian Embassy (KBRI) in Saudi Arabia never provided legal assistance to Ruyati, only Arabic translators. The KBRI did not even have documents related to Ruyati’s case.

When it comes to nationals on death row in other countries, there is a wall of silence at the high levels of Indonesian and Philippine governments.

Ruyati’s case highlighted the Indonesian government’s inability to provide adequate legal help for its foreign workers, according to Anis Hidayah, Migrant Care executive director.

Timeline-Ruyati-binti-Satubi

“They are victims of the brutality of employers who have no respect to human rights. They also have fallen victims to migrant policies, both in Indonesia and destination countries, which lack seriousness in protecting the rights of migrant workers,” Anis said.

However, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Michael Tene claimed in an interview that the case of Ruyati was an isolated incident. “As far as I know, Ruyati’s case is the only case where Indonesian authorities were not informed by the Saudi government of their national’s conviction,” Tene said.

When sought for reaction in Reynaldo Cortez’s case, a DFA official from the Office of Migrant Workers’ Affairs who requested anonymity said he could not comment as he is not familiar with it.

When informed of the circumstances of Reynaldo’s execution, the DFA official interviewed who worked at the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh for six years, could not believe it. “That moved fast… For the order of execution to come down from the court to the governor’s office, that takes a month. That’s the first time I heard that. There’s probably some false information there,” he said.

DFA’s response to Filipino migrant workers on death row does not come as a surprise for Migrante International, the largest alliance of overseas Filipino workers. Its chairman, Garry Martinez said that the Philippine government’s response to these cases has become predictable. First, the Philippine Embassy and the DFA only provide lawyers after the conviction. Second, they would either send diplomatic missions or provide small amount for the blood money, or the money paid to the families of victims to gain freedom. Third, if nothing worked, government officials would offer condolences to the grieving families and hold a Mass.

That response is not good enough for Cortez and other family members.

The DFA and the embassy officials in Riyadh had assured Cortez all along that they were taking care of Reynaldo’s case. When Reynaldo attended his last hearing, no one from the Philippine Embassy accompanied him.

Cortez did not have the slightest hint during her visit to the DFA on the day that Reynaldo’s life would end.

“He did not know, too,” Cortez said as she looked past the open door. It was raining outside. A tinge of pain crossed her face.

While Reynaldo Cortez died without family, Rodelio Lanuza remembers the day well. Lanuza, an overseas Filipino worker was serving time for murder with Reynaldo in the Saudi prison. He said Reynaldo was beheaded at around 7 a.m. and the Philippine embassy officials went to jail two hours after the execution.

The price of freedom

Rodelio Lanuza, an overseas Filipino worker saved from death row, speaks to one of the detained Filipinos in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Ronalyn V. Olea)
Rodelio Lanuza, an overseas Filipino worker saved from death row, speaks to one of the detained Filipinos in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Ronalyn V. Olea)

Lanuza was spared Reynaldo’s fate.

He spent 13 years on death row for killing an Arab national in self-defense.

Lanuza said the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh knew about his case from the start and had advised him to surrender to the authorities. He agreed, believing the promise that they would look after his case, but that never happened.

When the first hearing took place, no government official went to the court. The father of the Saudi national whom he had killed demanded Lanuza be beheaded in front him.

“I thought I was going to die that very moment,” Lanuza said, shaking his head. “I even called up my mother to say goodbye.”

The vice consul of the Philippine Embassy did attend his second hearing but when Lanuza asked if he would be provided a lawyer, Riyadh Ezzedin Tago told Lanuza the Philippine Embassy had no funds.

Only after the court handed down a death sentence did the Philippine Embassy hire a lawyer to file an appeal. That was the first and last time that a lawyer represented Lanuza in court. “Nothing came out of that appeal. I had been freed without a lawyer,” he said.

It was through the intervention of the Saudi Reconciliation Committee (SRC) that Lanuza was saved from death. For seven years, the SRC worked on Lanuza’s case and in 2011 negotiated a deal: freedom for three million Saudi riyals (US $800,000) as blood money.

It took three years to raise the money and gain his freedom. Lanuza said Philippine Embassy officials initially told him that the DFA could not provide any financial support.

Realizing he could not solely depend on the government, he started his online campaign on his cellphone, “Barya Mo, Buhay Ko” (Your Coins, My Life) and petitioned politicians, celebrities and ordinary people. He raised $57,000 from donations. Saudi King Abdullah provided 76.6 percent of the blood money amounting to $613,000. The Philippine government was the last to give its financial support, Lanuza said. He waited for one month for the government to deposit its share of $130,000 contribution or 16.25 percent of the total amount.

Lanuza lamented that for 13 years inside the Ammam jail, Philippine Embassy officials would visit detained Filipinos once a year. “They would not even talk to us, they just recited our names to know if we were still there,” he said.

Angered and frustrated

Others share their anger and frustration with the way Philippine authorities neglect nationals on death row.

Norie Gonzales, sister of Edison and Rolando Gonzales, who are both on death row, recalls how difficult it is to receive assistance from the Philippine government. (Photo by Ronalyn V. Olea)
Norie Gonzales, sister of Edison and Rolando Gonzales, who are both on death row, recalls how difficult it is to receive assistance from the Philippine government. (Photo by Ronalyn V. Olea)

Norie Gonzales has two brothers on death row in Saudi Arabia. Edison and Rolando Gonzales were convicted in 2007 for the killing of fellow Filipinos, Romeo Lumbang, Jeremias Bucud and Dante Rivero.

The DFA officials assured Gonzales that they were monitoring the case and instructed the family not to publicize the issue because the case was confidential.

On June 23, 2007, Gonzales received a call from Edison. “He was crying. He told me that they have been sentenced to death. It felt like it was the end of the world.”

Out of desperation, Gonzales went to two TV stations in Manila. For her, it was the only way to get the Philippine government to take the case of her brothers seriously.

Gonzales said it was only in April 2008 that the Philippine government provided a lawyer. At first, the DFA said it had no money to hire lawyers and asked the families to pay for P150,000 ($3,430) each for the legal expenses. Gonzales said only when the family took the story to the media did the DFA officials retract their demand.

Edison Gonzales (left) inside the Saudi prison. (Photo courtesy of the Gonzales family)
Edison Gonzales (left) inside the Saudi prison. (Photo courtesy of the Gonzales family)

The Gonzales brothers have now been on death row for eight years. Gonzales waits for the day her brothers will come home especially since that the families of the two slain Filipinos have forgiven the brothers.

Laws protecting migrant workers

Gonzales lamented how the Philippine government neglects overseas Filipino workers who contribute so much to the Philippine economy.

Both the Indonesian and Philippine economies hugely benefit from the labor export of its citizens.

In the Philippines, dollar remittances from migrants accounted for nearly a tenth of the $280-billion economy last year, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). In 2013, the inflow of remittances boosted the gross national income to 7.1 percent from 5.7 percent in 2012, data from the National Statistic Coordination Board (NSCB) show.

Indonesia’s BNP2TKI said the overseas remittances by Indonesian migrant workers amounted to Rp 88.6 trillion ($7.35 billion) during the period of January to December 2013.

Despite this, however, migrant workers from both countries are not getting the protection and assistance they need in times of distress.

Both countries ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families – the Philippines in July 1995 and Indonesia in May 2012.

The Philippines passed the Republic Act No. 8042, also known as the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995. The Act provides a mechanism to ensure the “rights and interest of distressed overseas Filipinos, in general, and Filipino migrant workers, in particular, documented or undocumented, are adequately protected and safeguarded.” The Act also provides for the establishment of the Legal Assistance Fund to be used “exclusively to provide legal services to migrant workers and overseas Filipinos in distress.” Under the law, government should set aside P100 million ($2.29 million) in the OFW Legal Assistance Fund.

Whenever a Filipino finds herself or himself in legal trouble, the DFA official says the DFA tries to give the best legal assistance it can. Unfortunately, he says resources are stretched. In the DFA’s Migrant Affairs office, about 30 case officers handle a docket of 4,000 to 5,000 cases at any given time, the DFA official said. Hiring lawyers is also expensive, so the DFA tries to be as selective as it can. “You want to target your resources to where you can be most effective,” he said.

In Indonesia, the government has issued Law No.39/2004 on the placement of Indonesian migrant workers. Dinda Nuurannissaa Yura, Women’s Solidarity head of migration, trafficking and HIV/AIDS division, said the Law 39 does not establish worker and employer rights and responsibilities and instead, only regulates the dispatching of migrant workers by migrant worker placement agencies.

The law, for instance, does not provide details on what legal assistance migrant workers can access in times of crisis. It does not cite any responsibility of destination countries for the protection the rights of migrant workers such as, for example, informing Indonesian embassies or representatives if there are Indonesian citizens facing legal problems.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen in the Law 39 is just trafficking legalized by law,” Dinda said.

Reforms

Dinda’s group is calling for the revision of the Law 39 to enable adequate protection for Indonesian migrant workers.

For Migrante International, the Philippine government must provide immediate legal assistance to Filipino migrant workers in distress.

Migrant organizations in both countries are critical of the proposals that focus on raising funds for blood money. Migrante International’s Martinez said it is a reactive and unsustainable response. For Indonesia’s NGOs, paying blood money should no longer be the primary solution although Indonesia has a huge source of money to pay the financial retribution to the victim’s relatives. According to the BNP2TKI, the government has the Migrant Workers Placement and Protection Management Fund collected from the migrants, amounting to $15 per person, from 2000 through 2011. In the past 11 years, around Rp 700 billion ($67 million) has been collected from 4.5 million Indonesian workers leaving the country.

The NGOs are calling for tougher political diplomacy and a comprehensive protection mechanism to protect Indonesian migrant workers from violence and rights violations.

Shattered dreams

For the families of executed migrant workers, the loss is incalculable.

Een, one of the three children of Ruyati, said her mother left Indonesia to work only because she wanted to improve their lives. She said Ruyati longed to see Epi Kurniati, her second child, achieve her dream of becoming a nurse in East Jakarta.

Ruyati’s monthly salary of around 600 riyals (US$160) on first and second trips allowed her to send money for Epi’s tuition and to buy her son Iwan Setiawan, a minivan for work.

Een said Ruyati decided to go to Saudi Arabia for the third time, hoping to save money for the family. “We didn’t expect that her pure wish to help our family’s economy would end in a single stroke of sword,” Een said.

As for Cortez, life without Reynaldo goes on. “It’s been so long,” she said, pausing for a moment.

Ace, their youngest of six children, is now 15 years old. He never saw his father. Reynaldo went to Saudi Arabia in 1998 while Melody was pregnant.

Girlie, the eldest daughter, is busy tallying her sales for the day. She is selling dressed chicken at the market. When we told her we wanted to interview her mother about Reynaldo, she said, matter-of-factly, “I had nervous breakdown after that,” referring to the grim incident.

Their brother, Allan, takes the family album from the bedroom and points to his father’s picture. Reynaldo, wearing a white shirt and denims, is smiling as his children’s sad eyes stare at the father they lost too young and too soon. ()

*The authors are fellows of the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism. The article is their final paper for the Advanced Reporting class under Prof. Kim Kierans.

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  1. Saudi Arabia is the most racist country in the world. Why people go there is beyond comprehension. I guess they value money and iPhone than their life.

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