A Filipino servant testified Monday that she feared the United Arab Emirates naval officer who brought her to the United States where he withheld wages, took her passport and told her not to speak with outsiders while working for him in Rhode Island.
Elizabeth Cabitla Ballesteros was the first witness called to testify in the trial of Col. Arif Mohamed Saeed Mohamed Al-Ali, who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he lured Ballesteros to the U.S., failed to pay her and kept her confined in his house. Chief Judge Mary Lisi is presiding over the bench trial in U.S. District Court in Providence.
Ballesteros became emotional and wiped tears from her eyes at times while describing her time working for Al-Ali. She said Al-Ali warned her against escaping from the East Greenwich home where he lived with his wife and five children.
Ballesteros testified Al-Ali told her: "Do not talk to anybody. Do not think to escape because the whole navy is in support of me."
Ballesteros traveled to the United States with Al-Ali in July 2010 after working for the family for three years in the United Arab Emirates. Al-Ali was in Rhode Island to train at the Naval War College in Newport.
Ballesteros testified that she attended a picnic on Aug. 6, 2010, with Al-Ali and his family, and encountered a Filipino woman there. She said she gave the woman a piece of paper with her cellphone number on it.
"I told her, `Ma'am, please help me,'" said Ballesteros, who testified that she worked on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on weekends from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. "I really wanted to be rescued. ... I felt, God help me. God help me because I really don't know what to do."
She also said the night before she left the UAE for the United States with Al-Ali and his family, the naval officer summoned her to his bedroom, where he made her sign a document affirming her receipt of 12 monthly payments of $1,600.
"He put it on my lap. He held my arm. He forced me to sign it," Ballesteros said through an interpreter. "He told me it was for his safety."
She said she was not paid, and when she confronted Al-Ali about the $1,600 salary in her contract, he told her it was "just a piece of paper."
Prosecutors say Al-Ali sent two monthly payments of $200 each to Ballesteros' family in the Philippines before she escaped in October 2010.
During cross-examination by defense attorney Robert C. Corrente, Ballesteros acknowledged she did not read her contract with Al-Ali before signing it. She also said she did not contact authorities, friends or families when Al-Ali had her sign a document attesting she had received 12 monthly payments of $1,600.
Ballesteros also testified that Al-Ali purchased new clothing and shoes for her to wear in the United States, arranged for her to get a SIM card so her cellphone would work in Rhode Island and did not restrict who she telephoned. She said when she encountered the Filipino woman at the picnic, she did not say she wanted to escape, but rather get help reaching the embassy because she wasn't being paid her full salary.
Al-Ali, dressed in a white naval uniform, silently took notes while Ballesteros testified. An interpreter is assisting him with the proceedings.
Corrente's cross-examination of Ballesteros is expected to resume on Tuesday.