UAE officer cleared of charges in RI servant case

AP News
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Posted: Aug 05, 2011 3:08 PM
UAE officer cleared of charges in RI servant case

A United Arab Emirates naval officer was acquitted Friday of keeping an unpaid servant after a judge concluded that the woman's testimony "doesn't have the ring of truth."

Col. Arif Mohamed Saeed Mohamed Al-Ali embraced his defense attorney and wept after Chief Judge Mary M. Lisi found him not guilty in U.S. District Court in Providence of fraud in foreign labor contracting. Earlier this week, Lisi acquitted him of lying to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

Elizabeth Cabitla Ballesteros, who testified twice at trial, had claimed Al-Ali didn't pay her for long hours of cleaning, cooking and baby-sitting and forced her to sign a document that acknowledged her pay.

"The complaining witness's testimony simply doesn't have the ring of truth," Lisi said.

Ballesteros, who also filed a civil lawsuit, left the courtroom without commenting. Her civil attorney, Ivy O. Suriyopas, called the verdict a "gross miscarriage of justice."

Defense attorney Robert C. Corrente said Ballesteros made up her story in search of a payday.

"This woman is a pathological liar who concocted this story to extort him," Corrente said. "Her story on its face was ridiculous. I think it's a disgrace that somebody of his distinction was treated like this."

Ballesteros accompanied Al-Ali's family last year to Rhode Island, where he was studying for a year at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport. He has since completed the program, and his wife and five children returned to the UAE in April after Al-Ali said they were shunned as a result of the criminal charges.

The trial pitted the word of Ballesteros, a Filipina mother seeking a better life for her children, against the testimony of Al-Ali, her educated and wealthy boss.

Lisi said she had doubts about Ballesteros's story even before Al-Ali took the stand in his own defense. She questioned why a naval officer with 30 years of service would jeopardize his opportunity to be among a select few to study in the U.S. by scamming a woman who had worked for him for three years and cared for his youngest son since infancy.

"It simply doesn't make sense," she said.

Lisi said she found "rather odd" Ballesteros's account of claiming to be forced to sign a payment receipt indicating she received 12 monthly payments of $1,600 before leaving for the U.S. She called Ballesteros's desire to go back to the Philippines after seeing the size of the rented East Greenwich home for the first time "very strange."

Lisi also called Ballesteros's testimony that she worked long hours cleaning the house, washing two cars daily, cooking, doing laundry and ironing for a family of seven "exaggerated."

She also highlighted the vastly differing accounts of a note Ballesteros said she left before leaving the house on Oct. 7. She testified that the note thanked Al-Ali for bringing her to the U.S. and told the family she loved their children. Al-Ali denied ever receiving such a note.

"If he had done what is alleged in this indictment, why if she left a note, would he call the police and call attention to himself? It doesn't make sense," Lisi said.

Al-Ali's story, Lisi said, was "plausible."

She said his account of paying Ballesteros her full salary in cash for working in Rhode Island before leaving for the U.S. at her request made sense given that Al-Ali always paid her cash and knew he could not bring more than $10,000 cash into the country. Lisi added Al-Ali's wealth and access to cash in his home also checked out.

She also said she believed Al-Ali's story about attempting to accompany his family back to the UAE with the intention of returning to the U.S. Officials arrested Al-Ali at a New York airport after he boarded the plane with his family. Authorities portrayed it as an attempt to flee.

Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha defended the decision to prosecute Al-Ali.

"We of course accept and respect Judge Lisi's decision," he said in a statement. "That said, we believed, and continue to believe, that there was probable cause to bring this case, and that it was important, under these circumstances, to give Ms. Ballesteros an opportunity to be heard."

Suriyopas, of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Ballesteros will continue with her lawsuit against Al-Ali and his wife, Samah Alharmoodi, in which she is seeking $200,000 in damages.

"The fact that (Lisi) didn't find it credible that a domestic worker would perform the amount of work that she did for the amount of time that she did demonstrates how out of touch she might be," Suriyopas said.

Lisi also was presiding over the lawsuit, but she recused herself on Friday. The civil case was reassigned to Judge John J. McConnell Jr.

The criminal trial, which began on July 18, was beset by delays prompted by translation problems and defense allegations that prosecutors had withheld evidence before trial.

Ballesteros' initial testimony was thrown out after an interpreter retained by prosecutors acknowledged she did not translate verbatim questions posed to the witness and her responses. A new interpreter from California was later retained to help Ballesteros, who speaks a dialect of the Tagalog language.