“Kayo lang po ang pag-asa ko (You are my only hope),” an emotional Mary Jane Veloso pleads to newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte.
Under the Noynoy Aquino administration, Veloso received a temporary reprieve from execution last April 29, 2015 — the only one to be spared among drug convicts that included leaders of the Bali Nine, an infamous group of Australians that smuggled heroin into Indonesia.
The authorities brought nine coffins inside Indonesia’s Execution Island — Nusakambangan in Central Java — and they were to be filled with bodies of Indonesia’s worst criminals. So bad that they deserved to face a firing squad of ten and have a bullet pierce through their hearts, and then through their heads at close range should their bodies survive the first blow.
I remember talking to Mary Jane’s sister Maritess that night; I put her on air with our anchor Jessica Soho for State of the Nation as she was making her way to Nusakambangan with her sister Darling and their mother Celia.
Maritess said that, for the longest time, the Department of Foreign Affairs barred them from talking to the media. This disappointment over the government was no longer news at the time — it was something clearly expressed especially by their mother Celia, leading her towards being cyberbullied for what the right-wing called as being ungrateful.
According to her family, Mary Jane didn’t have the benefit of state lawyers until she received her death sentence. It was lawyers from the human rights group National Union of Lawyers in the Philippines (NULP) who had worked to pursue charges against Cristina Sergio, Mary Jane’s alleged illegal recruiter and a fellow Filipina. This new case saved Mary Jane at the 11th hour.
Maritess and Darling could hear gunshots past 12 am at the execution area. Darling said they were so loud she felt she was the one being shot.
In the waiting room as relatives of the other eight began to cry, they were approached by an Indonesian guard who whispered “Philippines?,” confirming if they were Mary Jane’s relatives.
Through tears, they nodded yes. Then the good news. Mary Jane is still alive.
Over at the Indonesian Embassy on Salcedo Street in Makati City, rallyists received the news. They jumped in jubilation and hugged each other, even strangers.
Drugs and Death
Mary Jane’s story is not without conflict. After all, the Philippines is a country that once implemented the death penalty, but abolished it as a gift to Pope Benedict XVI. We are a country that grapples with our own drug problems. More than 26% of the total number of barangays in the Philippines are drug-afflicted, according to a report by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).
Thus it was a story that both moved and divided the nation. Many people believed that as much as we want to punish foreigners who smuggle drugs into our country, we should let our own people fall for doing the same abroad.
Except that Mary Jane claimed she was duped into carrying a baggage she didn’t know had heroin in its sleeves.
It’s a story we’ve heard before, but a heartbreaking one nonetheless. She was a single mother of two young boys, relying on a job that runs on a contract that always expires so soon, and the government’s conditional cash transfer program that also always runs out.
Cristina Sergio came along and asked if she wanted a job abroad. Of course, she said yes. She travelled to Malaysia and then to Indonesia where the authorities arrested her for drug possession.
She says she’s a victim, a “drug mule” as we like to call it, a story that Indonesians relate to as they also have their own drug mules imprisoned in other countries.
President Rodrigo Duterte is for the poor. But he’s also hell bent on destroying drug crimes, never mind if the bulk of the casualties come from the poor sector. Three months since President Duterte launched his war on drugs, there have been at least 134 casualties. Some died in legitimate police operations. Some are deaths under investigation because of the involvement of unknown hitmen and lawless elements.
These numbers may have changed by the time you’re reading this. The Philippine Daily Inquirer is maintaining a detailed kill list for your reference.
Pleading for Mercy
It was a mystery how President Duterte would look at Mary Jane’s story. Because of her circumstances, would he consider her a victim? Or because of her involvement in drugs, would he consider her a criminal, one among the many who deserves to be shot dead?
Mary Jane pleaded to her last hope, the new President: “Matagal na akong nagtitiis dito sa Indonesia, nagtitiis sa lahat ng ito gayong wala naman akong kasalanan (I have been suffering for so long in Indonesia, suffering for the sins I did not commit.)”
In response, Duterte said he will plead for Mary Jane’s clemency. He was set to meet Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi, as the Indonesian press calls him) for the ASEAN meeting in Laos and then in Indonesia for a state visit.
“I may just have to ask Widodo in the most respectful and very, very courteous way and if my pleadings fall on deaf ears, I am ready to accept for the simple reason I do not doubt the judicial system of Indonesia,” he told the press, a statement that reeks of many caveats.
“I may…” he said, not “I will..” then he followed it with “if my pleadings fall on deaf ears, I am ready to accept.”
Lost in Translation?
If there is one thing we know too well about President Duterte, it’s that his words should be analyzed repeatedly lest we risk being crucified for reporting supposed lies.
Despite earlier pronouncements from the Department of Foreign Affairs that the two leaders didn’t discuss Veloso in Jakarta, President Duterte indicated that they did — but that it wasn’t for public consumption. Did he plead? We don’t know. He never said he would. He just said he may. But he did accept the “judicial system of Indonesia.”
How did Jokowi process his conversation with Duterte? Talking to reporters in Serang, the Indonesian President said that he has spoken with Duterte about the case of Veloso and the postponement of the execution. This is the actual quote from Jokowi according to this report from the Antara News Agency: “President Duterte has given permission to proceed with the execution.”
Presidential Spokesperson Secretary Ernesto Abella clarified the actual words of Duterte to Jokowi: “Follow your own laws. I will not interfere.” Abella stressed that there was no endorsement or any categorical statement from Duterte.
As a result, all hell broke loose in social media. Did President Duterte just give the green light to execute Veloso after all the efforts to save her? According to DFA Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., the issue is not urgent because there is no execution schedule for Veloso. There is also a standing agreement to allow Veloso to testify first against Sergio.
“We believe there may be parsing or nuancing somewhere of apparently conflicting and confusing accounts which in fact are not contradictory,” the National Union of Lawyers of the Philippines said in a statement.
Coming to the President’s defense, some of his supporters are barking at media organizations for reporting this update at all. They feel that we’d be better off leaving diplomatic discussions to the diplomats; that headlining this would get in the way of the dealings between the two countries, and may result to a rift between Duterte and Jokowi.
“Shut Up Ka na Lang”
This is what some netizens would say when there are questions or apparent oppositions to Duterte’s decisions and statements. Is it better to always be on the side of our government? Should we really stay quiet all the time? Should we abandon our capability to think critically?
To stay vigilant over Mary Jane’s case may just be the difference between life and death. We remember the protests leading up to the execution date in April last year, and the political pressure on both governments that gave Mary Jane an extra year to live.
And this is not just about Mary Jane.
There are currently 88 Filipinos on death row, 42 of them are due to drug trafficking. Junevie San Juan may soon fall on death row in Saudi Arabia, possibly joining 27 other Filipinos. Her mother Elvie has appealed for the government to help them, scared that Junevie may be the next Mary Jane, that it might be too late:
“Paulit-ulit ‘yan, pabalik-balik ako, ang sabi hintayin lang ninyo Misis. Hanggang kailan ako maghihintay? Kapag huli na ang lahat? Doon lang sila kikilos? (I asked for help repeatedly, I keep coming back, I’m always told just wait. Wait until when, when it’s too late?).”
We held the Aquino administration accountable for Mary Jane Veloso. There’s no reason why we can’t put Duterte under the same probe.
If we stop scrutinizing every step of this case, we may be allowing our government to believe we had forgotten all the times they had let the Mary Janes of our nation down. It would be allowing them to think they can do it again. To do it again to Junevie, and to the 87 others who are counting on them to survive.
To do it again to Mary Jane who has no idea how much time she has left.
If we stop probing now, we might as well have let Mary Jane take that bullet to the heart on the dawn of April 29; and then let Junevie suffer the same fate.
If we “do not interfere,” we will be conceding that Mary Jane is the next casualty in our war against drugs, that Indonesia will not kill her, that we will kill her.
[Entry 170, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Lian Nami Buan is the Managing Director and the European Bureau Chief of SubSelfie.com. She also leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She was a news producer for GMA News for six years before she moved to England to take up her Masters in Digital Journalism at the Goldsmiths, University of London. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.