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Two chartered planes to bring home jailed OFWs from Saudi

- Paolo Romero -
RIYADH — It will be a flight to freedom for two planeloads of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are coming back to the Philippines with President Arroyo after they were released en masse from jail by Saudi King Abdullah.

The President herself announced before a gathering of Filipinos at the Philippine Embassy here that the Saudi monarch has ordered the release of 138 jailed Filipinos, more than the 50 whose freedom she had initially secured upon arriving here on Sunday.

"Last night, I thanked His Royal Highness, the King, because since the beginning of this year or in just four months, they have pardoned more than 100 Filipinos who are in prison. So, I said I hope I could bring home 50 more," Mrs. Arroyo told a cheering crowd of nearly 2,000.

She disclosed that in a meeting with Crown Prince Waleed bib Al-Tatal on Monday, the Saudi Minister of Interior informed her that her request for the mass release of 50 Filipinos was approved but they were releasing not just 50 but 138.

"In my state visit to Saudi Arabia, the paramount interest is to ensure your safety and security here," Mrs. Arroyo said.

The President also ordered Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) Administrator Marianito Roque to allocate funds for hiring Arab lawyers to defend OFWs charged with various offenses.

She also earlier appealed to the King to look into the case of Filipinos facing execution.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the mass pardon was the first in Saudi history. It is also apparently the first time that a Philippine president would bring home such a large number of Filipinos following a foreign visit.

He hinted that the number may still increase in the last two days of Mrs. Arroyo’s visit to the kingdom.

In Jeddah, Consul-General Pendosina Lomondot announced that in deference to the visit of Mrs. Arroyo, authorities have ordered the release of eight more jailed Filipinos and 79 others from immigration detention centers.

"This is the best gift that we can bring home to the Philippines," the President said.

Administration lawmakers lauded the release of jailed OFWs. House Deputy Majority Leader Antonio Cerilles of Zamboanga del Sur and Isabela Rep. Rodito Albano said the President’s fruitful visit to Saudi Arabia showed her strong determination and focus to protect the interest of all Filipinos.

The Philippine Embassy here and other concerned agencies are now rushing the paper work so that all the freed Filipinos can join the President in her trip back to Manila.

Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas and Roque said they are rushing to charter another plane to Manila as the presidential flight back would not be enough to accommodate all the OFWs.

The chartered flight would come from Dammam and leave today with the presidential flight.

Sto. Tomas told reporters that most of the freed OFWs are male and were jailed for minor offenses such as violating religious and cultural norms of the conservative oil-rich kingdom. Some, however, were charged with serious crimes like homicide. A few were women and one is a minor.

Bunye disclosed that the release of Filipino prisoners was "a bonus package on top of the main agenda of the state visit, which is the welfare of OFWs, energy security and peace in Mindanao."

Meanwhile, the Philippine government has begun mapping out a contingency plan for the protection and possible evacuation of Filipinos working in Iran, which could enter into an armed conflict with the United States and its allies over its refusal to abandon its nuclear program.

Ambassador Roy Cimatu, special envoy to the Middle East, said yesterday that the government does not want to be caught unprepared in the event of an attack on Iran, which is contributing to the tension in the region and driving up oil prices.

"We’re watching closely the events and we are preparing for any eventuality," Cimatu, who also chairs the Middle East Preparedness Team (MEPT), told reporters here. With James Mananghaya

ADMINISTRATOR MARIANITO ROQUE AMBASSADOR ROY CIMATU CONSUL-GENERAL PENDOSINA LOMONDOT CROWN PRINCE WALEED FILIPINOS HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS HOUSE DEPUTY MAJORITY LEADER ANTONIO CERILLES OF ZAMBOANGA MRS. ARROYO PHILIPPINE EMBASSY SAUDI ARABIA
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