Image: Sarah Balabagan and band
Aaron Favila  /  AP
Sarah Balabagan, front, poses with bandmates at a studio in Quezon city, north of Manila, in the Philippines on Dec. 5, 2008. Now a budding singer and TV host, Balabagan has come a long way since being freed from a 1995 death sentence she faced in the Middle East for killing an Arab employer she accused of attempting to rape her.
updated 1/18/2009 4:11:52 PM ET 2009-01-18T21:11:52

Sentenced to death for killing an employer she accused of trying to rape her, 14-year-old Sarah Balabagan became the public face of poor Filipino migrant workers who regularly suffer abuses abroad.

That was 13 years ago. Her execution by firing squad in the Middle East commuted, she is now a budding singer and TV host who uses her songs and story as weapons against labor abuses.

"They should not be afraid to talk and to fight, that's the message in my songs," said Balabagan, who has recorded two CDs focusing on her campaign and newfound Christian faith.

She has sold several thousand copies, mostly to Filipino migrant workers during concert tours, where she preaches the lessons of her near-death ordeal. In October, she visited Malaysia and Singapore, frequent destinations for Filipino maids.

At a Manila gathering of overseas workers in December, Balabagan and her band belted out a mix of songs and ballads.

"Don't let yourself be stepped on wherever you end up," she admonished the crowd in a Tagalog-language song. "Don't cower when you know you're right."

Former President Joseph Estrada, an ex-movie star, shook her hands and posed with her before TV cameras. "She's a celebrity now," Estrada said.

Balabagan is from a Muslim family in southern Maguindanao province, a region torn by a decades-old Muslim separatist rebellion. Her family was so poor that half of her 14 siblings died because they lacked access to basic medical care, she said.

In June 1994, when she was 14, she left for the United Arab Emirates to work as a maid, saying she was 28 to circumvent an age limit set by Philippine authorities. After more than a month, she stabbed her Arab employer 34 times, alleging he tried to rape her at knifepoint.

A court sentenced her to seven years in prison while acknowledging she was abused. But in a 1995 retrial, a second court found no evidence of rape and condemned her to die.

An international outcry led to her sentence being reduced to one year and 100 lashes, plus payment of "blood money" to her employer's family, which was provided by a Filipino businessman. She returned home in 1996 to a shower of cash, scholarships and attention.

A Philippine studio made a 1997 film about her, which earned her $92,000. Then came on-and-off appearances on TV and radio programs that dealt with overseas workers, allowing her to travel to Europe, the United States and Asian countries.

Balabagan later started a small business to help send her three children to school. She converted to Christianity in 2003.

Such cases, ending in death sentences, aren't just a Middle East problem.

After a Filipino maid was hanged in Singapore in 1995 for a double murder she claimed she didn't commit, the Philippines passed the Migrant Workers' Act, which outlined steps for the government to protect migrant workers abroad.

The more than 8 million Filipinos who work overseas have been called "new heroes" by the government for the earnings they send home. In 2007, they remitted almost $14.5 billion, equal to 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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