Aquino’s challenge: Filipinos on death row in China, elsewhere

Kin of overseas Filipinos on death row weep in a press conference with their group Migrante. Photo by Jo. A Santos/Bulatlat

Three Filipinos were saved from certain death after the Chinese government postponed their execution on drug trafficking charges but more needs to be done by the Philippine government.

Yes, more and much more. According to Migrante International, an alliance of overseas Filipino workers, 125 other Filipinos face the death penalty in a number of countries and many of them have not been given the attention by the Philippine government.

If that means President Benigno Aquino III starts sending Vice President Jejomar Binay to new missions in those countries where Filipinos face execution, so be it. That’s part of the mandate and responsibilities of the Philippine government to its citizens — to defend their rights and interests, and to champion our national policies, including the fundamental right to life.

The saga of Filipinos facing execution in many countries is a sad editorial on the real status of OFWs vis-a-vis the government that proclaims them the country’s “new heroes”.

Although OFWs are credited for bringing in billions of dollars in remittances to help the decrepit Philippine economy afloat, many agencies of government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs, appear to be remiss in providing them the necessary assistance. For instance, it is not farfetched that the DFA does not have a list of all overseas Filipinos facing various types of legal trouble. They should because that’s a part — no, an essential part — of their job, to offer assistance to Filipino nationals.

Of course, I am not proclaiming the innocence of the three Filipinos in China and the 125 others facing the death penalty in other countries. It is the government’s job to make sure that their fundamental right to due process — to be presumed innocent by both our government and the authorities in the countries where they have allegedly committed offenses — is upheld and respected. The government should make available lawyers to defend the rights of these Filipinos. Otherwise, our embassies and consulates would only reinforce the widespread perception that they are merely the offices of professional jetsetters and political appointees wishing to do enjoy flying all over the world on our account.

Next month, the Philippines marks the anniversary of the execution of OFW Flor Contemplacion in Singapore, an incident which Filipinos and the government should learn from.

Even if Filipinos allegedly committed crimes in their host countries, our diplomats and their offices should champion their right to due process and the presumption of innocence. That should be a clear mandate in their “assistance to nationals” sections. The last things we would like to hear from our diplomats abroad is that they are sleeping, dining and partying on the job, or opt to badmouth our own citizens who need their help. Let the courts judge our citizens. The government’s — and our diplomats’ — job is to make sure our citizens’ rights are protected.

The Philippines prides itself to having no death penalty, and this is perhaps the Philippine government’s strongest “ace” in seeking the suspend, cancel and commute death penalties meted against our citizens. Everytime a Filipino is sentenced to death in any court in the world, the government has a legal and moral obligation to do all that it can to have them spared that kind of penalty.

OFWs and expat Filipinos meanwhile must speak out and demand more from themselves and their government. They should speak out and help prosecute those behind the drug trafficking that endangers so many OFWs especially in China, and the illegal recruiters who continue to prey on them. The Philippine government meanwhile should crack down on these drug traffickers and illegal recruiters. They should not go unchallenged and unpunished for sending Filipinos to harm’s way and, as in the case of those in China, to almost certain death. The identification, prosecution, conviction and punishment of these crooks, drug traffickers and their syndicates would be a best way to educate our people on the perils of doing anything illegal and criminal.

The Philippines should take better care of its citizens overseas. There are real and valid reasons why Filipinos stay away from the DFA and our embassies and consulates if they could help it. Most often, the diplomats and staff are rude, arrogant and show no sense of service and compassion to the citizens they are sworn to serve. Whether during elections, renewing passports, applying for all sorts of permits, OFWs are made to feel that these representatives and foreign offices of their own government are doing them a favor. Sometimes, they are happy to see OFWs – but only when they are made to pay fees and other indirect taxes. A sense of nationalism and of service towards is badly needed in the Philippine foreign service. If it had been this way worldwide, Filipinos would have no second thoughts about going to any of our embassies and consulates to register their presence and keep in touch with our diplomats and their staff.

President Aquino should be able to take a longer view on our OFWs and how to compel his government to better serve and protect them. For starters, the President should restore or increase the budget for OFW assistance which his government reduced to a paltry P27-million in this year’s budget. For instance, he could direct the DFA and other agencies such as the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, and ask Congress participation in, a permanent body to investigate all pending cases and pending executions of our citizens abroad, as well as to plan and oversee the implementation of contingencies during emergencies such as the strifes in the Middle East and Africa. It would be much appreciated by their relatives and the public if the President orders officials to make an inventory of all these pending cases and executions worldwide, and to check what has been done by our diplomats and whether the services of the Vice President if needed anytime in the future. The President could also appoint the Vice President as his permanent envoy on OFW affairs, a job which he performed well in China, if he could not trust him to be his DFA secretary.

With the Philippines’ foreign policy limited by how it toes the line of Washington on most major regional and international issues and beg countries for aid or investments, the government should do the next best thing – do everything possible to serve its citizens abroad.

First published on Asian Correspondent.