Twenty years have passed since Flor Contemplacion was executed in Singapore. Today, Mary Jane Veloso, 30, may very well suffer the same fate in Indonesia–unless the Filipino people and the international community can pressure the Indonesian government to show clemency.
After all, it is the firm belief of Mary Jane’s family and supporters that she is in fact a victim of human trafficking and she could not have been capable of consciously committing the crime of trafficking illegal drugs. They said that like Flor, Mary Jane merely wanted to help her family have a better life by working abroad. They said she was merely victimized by others who exploited her desperation.
On March 26, the Indonesian Supreme Court rejected her appeal for judicial review. It has not become a race against time for her supporters and family, according to Migrante International, an organization of Filipino overseas workers and their families.
For her family
Just like most of the overseas Filipino workers (OFW), Mary Jane wanted to lift the economic status of their family. One of the few options she had was to work abroad.
Mary Jane and her family struggled to make a living everyday. Her parents used to collect bottles, cans, and anything of value from the garbage. Her father, Cesar Veloso, was once a sakada (sugarcane worker) in Hacienda Luisita, the vast sugar plantation controlled by President Aquino’s family in Tarlac province.
On November 6, 2004, sugar farm workers and community members in the hacienda staged a strike to fight for higher wage, humane working conditions, and the right to own the land. Police and private security personnel open fire on them, killing seven strikers and wounding hundreds.
“I worked there since I was 15 years old, until I had my second child. It was so hard. I even experienced urinating blood,” said Cesar. Like other sakadas, Cesar travelled to other provinces and haciendas to work other sugarcane plantations.
Unable to work the fields any longer, Cesar, together with his wife, Celia Veloso, became garbage collectors, collecting and selling plastic pails, basin, and others.
Mary Jane tried marriage in order to have a partner help per escape from poverty. But she married an “irresponsible husband” and they eventually separated. She was left by herself to raise their two children.
“Mary Jane told us that she wanted to go abroad to help our family. She wanted to change our lives. She pitied our parents who are old and yet still collect garbage in order for us to eat,” said Maritess, Mary Jane’s sister.
Not a criminal
Mary Jane’s mother Celia said she loved her daughter dearly.
“There was a time when she went home and had a dress with her. I asked where she got it. She said, ‘My teacher gave it to me because she said I was kind,’” according to Celia. Even when she was bullied as a kid, she stayed out of trouble and opted to run home.
Celia said it must have been hard for Mary Jane to leave home. “She can get easily scared of things,” the mother recalled. But Mary Jane was determined to help her family.
She went first to Bahrain for ten months but almost got raped by her employer. She immediately went back to the Philippines. She did not finish her two-year contract with her employer.
Back home, Mary Jane met one Maria Kristina Sergio who allegedly recruited her to work for “a friend” in Malaysia.
The promise of P25,000 per month attracted her to the offer. Mary Jane put up P20,000 to pay Sergio for her papers. Within five days, Mary Jane again left–this time to Malaysia with Sergio.
“Sergio told my sister not to carry a lot of her stuff because she will be given clothes and everything (she needed). Mary Jane only left with a small bag,” said her sister Maritess.
But when they arrived in Malaysia, Sergio informed Mary Jane that her friend already hired a maid. Nevertheless, Sergio assured Mary Jane that she will help her look for an employer for her. Eventually, Sergio found one–in Indonesia.
They stayed in Malaysia for three days while waiting for Mary Jane’s flight to Indonesia.
“Sergio gave Mary Jane everything she needed. Mary Jane said that her stuff were unable to fit in her bag. But Sergio told Mary Jane not to worry because she asked her boyfriend named Prince to buy her a luggage,” Maritess narrated.
When Mary Jane took the luggage given to her by Prince, she immediately noticed that it was heavier than her old luggage. Sergio said it was just because the luggage was new. Mary Jane checked the luggage but found nothing inside.
Mary Jane and Sergio separated when they arrived in the airport: Sergio took a flight back to the Philippines, while Mary Jane took a flight to Java, Indonesia.
When Mary Jane arrived at the Yogyakarta airport, her luggage passed through the x-ray machine. Suspecting that something illegal was in the luggage, the airport authorities removed all her stuff from it, cut the luggage’s lining and found packets of the illegal drug heroin.
“They asked my sister if she knew what it was. My sister had no idea. When she heard that it was an illegal drug, Mary Jane could not say a single word. She immediately cried. That’s all that she was able to do for herself at that time,” recounted Maritess.
Mary Jane was immediately brought to jail and charged with drug trafficking–the punishment of which, in Indonesia, is death.
“My sister does not deserve to be executed. When I visited to her in jail, I told her, ‘Jane, tell me the truth. Did you really do it?’ She answered me, ‘Big sister, I am going to die. Why I should not tell the truth? Whatever happens, I have nothing to admit because I did not do anything,’” said Maritess.
Mary Jane was found guilty by an Indonesian court and was sentenced to die by firing squad.
“When we heard (about the sentence), it felt so painful. We were not able to sleep. We could not do anything but cry. I cannot understand why this happened to my kindest child,” said Celia.
The sentence was all the more painful because they knew Mary Jane was innocent. “If she really did it, at least we would know that she did it. But it is really painful knowing that she is innocent and she will be executed for the crime she didn’t do,” the sister said.
In a media interview, Sergio denied all the allegations by the Veloso family against her.
When they found out about Mary Jane’s arrest, the Veloso family went to Philippine authorities for help. They said they were given cold shoulders. “We even received harsh words from the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs), instead of help,” said Cesar.
The Veloso family insisted that they got no help from the Aquino government when Mary Jane was arrested and even when she was sentenced to death. It took five years before the Philippine government helped the family visit Mary Jane in Indonesia–for four days only.
The Indonesian government, meanwhile, granted the family a month-long visit to Mary Jane in 2013. Sympathetic Indonesian jail officials themselves raised funds for Mary Jane’s family to visit Mary Jane for the first time since she left home.
“They (jail authorities), too, believe that my daughter is innocent, and that she is incapable of doing what (the Indonesian government) is accusing her,” Cesar added.
According to the family, a judge in a lower court earlier heard Mary Jane’s case and found her innocent of the charges. But a higher court convicted her. During the family’s jail visit, the lower court judge even accompanied them.
Compare this to the apparent lack of sympathy from Philippine authorities, Cesar said. “For five years, Mary Jane had no lawyer (appointed by the Philippine government). It is only now that they appointed one after she was sentenced. Many times we called and went to the DFA, no one accommodated us. No one told us about the status of her case. We got tired seeking for their help. We just decided to save the money and sent it to Mary Jane so she could use it while in jail,” Celia recounted.
The DFA, for its part, insisted that it provided help to Mary Jane.
But the family said that the Indonesian government provided a public attorney for Mary Jane. Agus Salim, Mary Jane’s Indonesian lawyer, also said that Mary Jane was not able to defend herself because she was not given a lawyer or a translator when the police interrogated her upon arrest.
Salim said that during her trial, the court-provided interpreter was a mere student in a foreign language school in Yogyakarta, and was not duly-licensed by the Association of Indonesian Translators. During most of the hearings, the police provided her with a public defender.
Mary Jane’s supporters said they were outraged at the apparent lack of help from the Aquino government. But they were first to admit that they were not surprised. “What did our government do for years? They just wasted a lot of opportunities to save the life of Mary Jane,” said Connie Bragas-Regalado of Migrante Sectoral Party.
Regalado said that on August 2011, President Aquino filed an appeal for clemency. At that time, Indonesia had a moratorium on executions. The government should have seized the opportunity to save Mary Jane’s life.
Race against time
Because of protest actions led by the Velosos and their supporters, the public took notice and Philippine and Indonesian governments began to be pressured to act on Mary Jane’s case.
The DFA announced that the case will undergo judicial review by the Indonesian government. But this does not mean Mary Jane’s life is now spared, according to Migrante.
“We must continue our struggle to save the life of Mary Jane. Now, more and more people believe Mary Jane is innocent. She is a victim of human trafficking and of extreme poverty. Now, she is also a victim government negligence just like what happened to Flor (Contemplacion) 20 years ago,” said Gary Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International.
Martinez added that while they have not lost hope that Mary Jane will be spared from execution, her family and supporters also demanded that the Aquino government be held accountable for its apparent “criminal neglect”.
“We see a pattern here, a deadly pattern of lip service and abandonment. (It is) a deadly pattern that had so far claimed the lives of seven Filipinos on death row abroad,” said Martinez, referring to the number of Filipino executed abroad since President Aquino took office in 2010.
Migrante said that the figure the biggest under one term since the Philippines started its labor export policy during the 1970s.
“Time is of the essence in this fight. The life of Mary Jane is not in our hands; it is in the hands of people in power who can command to execute or spare a life of a person. We are being challenged to act together (and) not allow another Flor to happen,” concluded Martinez.