Urgent legal assistance for OFWs in jail sought; Families decry effect of 50% budget cut in DFA legal aid funds

The families of more than 50 overseas Filipino workers jailed in the Middle East today trooped to the Department of Foreign Affairs to demand immediate legal assistance for their kin.

Joselito Zapanta has been in death row for eight months but is yet to be provided with the services of a lawyer by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

Joseph Urbiztondo was meted a life sentence after having been tried for murder but has not had a lawyer for 14 years. He and his family insist that he committed the crime out of self-defense.

Meanwhile, 15 of the jailed OFWs are presently detained at the Dammam Central Jail. Their cases were brought to the attention of Migrante International through repatriated jailed rape victim Nerissa Neri who brought home with her a signed letter from the OFWs asking the Philippine government to provide them with much-needed legal aid.

The rest are accused of petty crimes, drug-related cases and “illicit affairs” and currently languishing in Middle East jails. All of them have not yet been given proper legal aid.

According to Martinez, their group conducted a series of dialogues with the DFA last year and the agency committed to immediately address the legal needs of the OFWs. “Pero bagong taon na lumang gawi pa rin ang ating gobyerno,” he said.

Martinez said that whether or not the OFWs committed the crimes they are accused of, they all have the right to due process and legal representation. “It is the main responsibility of the Philippine government to ensure these rights of our nationals. These services are entrenched in Republic Act 10022 or the amended Migrants’ Act through the DFA’s legal assistance fund (LAF).”

Budget cuts scored

The migrant leader also expressed grave concern over the slashing of the LAF by 50 percent in the 2011 national budget, saying that jailed OFWs now have grimmer chances of being granted legal aid and, ultimately, their right to due process.

According to Migrante International’s computations, last year’s P100 million LAF only earmarked a total of P14,000 for each of the 7,000 OFWs in jail. “Now with the LAF cut in half, only P7,000 will be allotted for OFWs in jail. Di hamak na mas malaking salapi pa ang ginastos sa bagong Porsche ni P-Noy,” Martinez said.

In the Middle East, the DFA pegs the cost of hiring a lawyer to at least $10,000USD per case.

“We demand that the DFA and the Aquino administration provide immediate and urgent legal assistance to OFWs in jail. It is the Philippine government’s mandate and responsibility to ensure that the rights of all Filipino nationals are protected and upheld. This is clear and gross government neglect,” he said. ###