Press Release
April 30, 2015


Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago on Thursday filed a bill to ensure that the government's legal assistance fund will immediately and continuously be made available to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) whose charges abroad might put them under life sentence or death penalty.

Santiago, an elected judge of the International Criminal Court, filed Senate Bill No. 2739, which seeks to amend R.A. No. 8042, the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act, by expanding the legal assistance fund managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

If amended, the law will guarantee that the legal assistance fund shall at all times be made available from the time of arrest or charging up to the trial, and at all levels of appeal, for migrant workers facing charges with the prescribed penalty of life imprisonment or death.

Santiago's proposal comes as the country follows the case of Mary Jane Veloso, a convicted drug mule in Indonesia. Veloso's execution was stayed after the Philippines appealed that she be allowed to testify in proceedings here against her alleged illegal recruiter.

"Mary Jane Veloso lives for now, but she is still on death row. The government may have persuaded Indonesia to postpone the execution, but it appears that it has failed to make sure there is no death sentence in the first place," the senator said.

Santiago assailed the government's failure to immediately provide lawyers who will see Veloso through Indonesia's criminal proceedings. Veloso reportedly had no counsel when her initial testimonies were recorded, and was assisted during trial by an unlicensed translator.

Indonesia sentenced Veloso to death in 2010. The Philippines appealed for clemency in 2011, saying that Veloso is a victim of an international syndicate using unsuspecting OFWs as drug couriers. The appeal was rejected in January 2015, and Veloso was scheduled for execution.

"Must we always resort to last-minute remedies? Must we wait for Filipinos to be put behind foreign bars or sentenced to death before we act?" Santiago said.

At present, R.A. No. 8042 and its implementing rules allow access to the legal assistance fund only in the absence of a counsel de oficio or court-appointed lawyer or, at all instances, upon conviction and the penalty meted is life imprisonment or death.

Other than these two instances, access to the fund is not mandatory, and amounts may be disbursed only under meritorious circumstances as determined by the Udersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs.

Santiago said that this led embattled Filipinos abroad to entrust their fates in the hands of foreign court-appointed lawyers who most likely cannot sufficiently communicate to the OFWs in distress in a language that the OFWs know.

"Worse, OFWs are left to fend for themselves completely without competent legal assistance at the time of their arrest all the way to trial proper--a crucial period where legal assistance is most needed," the senator added.

Congress has raised the legal assistance fund to P100 million this year from P30 million in 2014, but Malacañang, in its veto message, placed it under appropriations approved for "conditional implementation," citing lack of income sources for the creation of the special fund.

This, despite the fact that personal remittances from OFWs increased to some $27 billion last year from some $25 billion in 2013, based on central bank data. There were some 2.2 million OFWs in 2013, the latest figures from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

"If the country is to continue to allow the export of our labor force, it is imperative that we do not abandon distressed OFWs to life behind bars or even death without giving them the competent and timely legal assistance they need and deserve," Santiago said.

The senator, who remains on medical leave due to her lung cancer, stage four, earlier prodded her colleagues to act on pending measures to protect OFWs. Such measures include at least five resolutions she authored, urging Senate inquiries in aid of legislation.

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