GUAGUA, Pampanga, Philippines — The appeals by the wife and children of beheaded overseas Filipino worker Reynaldo Cortez to Philippine authorities to bring home his remains from Saudi Arabia was all for naught on Thursday.
Esteban Conejos, Department of Foreign Affairs undersecretary for migrant affairs, has informed Cortez’s wife Melody by phone that “in respect of laws and customs in Saudi Arabia, a convict after his execution must be immediately buried in an unmarked grave.”
“We cannot repatriate his remains. I do not think we can bring home the body,” Conejos later confirmed to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQUIRER.net.
Asked if that was on account of Cortez being a convert to Islam, Conejos said it was more because of the laws and burial custom for convicts in that Middle East kingdom.
After the call by Conejos, Melody left the veranda, walked inside the family’s 4 x 3 meter house, slumped on a plastic chair and withdrew into silence in front of an altar where her six children had lit thin white candles beside the four photographs of their father.
It appeared to be the closest thing they could do to approximate a wake for him.
Cortez, 41, was beheaded by sword in a Riyadh jail Wednesday for the murder of a Pakistani taxi driver who reportedly tried to rape him in 2001.
Melody, 37, held back words and tears. She reclined her head on her left hand, as sadness and rage showed through her face.
Stunned by news of not being able to see their father even on his death, Cortez’s children — Girlie, 18; April, 17; the twins Allan and Allen, 14; and Ace, 8 — stared hard at their father’s photographs. Alfie, the eldest, slept his sadness away.
Girlie broke the silence by asking, “Are we not really going to be able to bury him here?”
Melody gave no answer. An hour before Conejos broke the news she said she wanted his remains sent home so his children could have time to pay their last respect to him.
In the cramped receiving room, April let out a painful truth. “We waited for him for nine years and we can’t get to even see his body?” she said.
Throughout the waiting, Cortez had stayed in touch with them occasionally by calling them through borrowed mobile phones.
He last called them on June 10 to check on April’s health. Ace, the youngest, had never seen his father in person. He was still in his mother’s womb when Cortez left in 1998 to work as a welder in a car workshop.
The stabbing incident happened on May 12, 2001 when Cortez was finished with his contract and was bound for home, Melody said. Since then, she has single-handedly raised the children by selling rice and clothes.
To April’s query, Melody said: “We will still try.”
Earlier that morning though, at around 8 a.m., she got assurances from Mayor Ricardo Rivera that the DFA, on the requests of Malacañang and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s son, Pampanga Representative Juan Miguel Arroyo, would exert efforts to repatriate the remains.
Migrante International Chair Connie Bragas-Regalado said that the call by Conejos to Melody made it clear that the family’s appeals have gone futile.
Regalado said Migrante was taking the case to the international human rights community to “seek justice” for Cortez.
Melody maintained that her husband was innocent and that he stabbed the victim to death out of self-defense.
Conejos said the DFA tried every means to save Cortez from the death row since 2005.
But Regalado said the government had not fully explored negotiations with the Saudi Arabia monarchy.
“(The DFA) got stuck on offering blood money or asking for forgiveness. It was afraid to strain diplomatic relations (with Saudi Arabia) in consideration of the opportunities in the labor market,” she said.
“Ang feeling ni Rey pinabayaan siya ng gobyerno (He felt that the government neglected him),” Melody said of her husband’s views before the execution. The date was not announced, she added.
When the death sentence was read, Cortez claimed the Philippine Embassy sent no lawyers to help him, Regalado recalled of Cortez’s text messages to her.
The death of Cortez, she said, should serve as a “wake-up call” to the government in terms of protecting distressed migrant workers. The DFA said 33 are on the death row in the Middle East countries.
Cortez’s execution came on the same month the government observed Migrants Month.
“The government passed into law the Magna Carta for Overseas Workers (Republic Act No. 8042) after Flor’s (Contemplacion) death by hanging in 1995. That is supposed to ensure their protection, if implemented,” Regalado said.