How Mary Jane Veloso won a last-minute reprieve

April 30, 2015 10:16
Filipino activists react after Mary Jane Veloso won a stay of execution at the 11th hour. Veloso was scheduled to be executed by squad in Indonesia for drug smuggling. Photo: Reuters

A Filipina drug convict was spared execution in Indonesia at the last minute on Tuesday, ending high-profile efforts to save her by ordinary Filipinos all the way up to their president and a boxing superstar.

Mary Jane Veloso was sentenced to die by firing squad after being convicted of a capital offense for smuggling 2.6 kilos of heroin in April 2010.

President Benigno Aquino III lobbied his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, to spare her life and boxing hero Manny Pacquiao issued a video appeal while thousands of Filipinos took to the streets to plead for mercy.

When the decision for a stay of execution was announced, Veloso escaped the fate of eight other drug convicts who were executed by firing squad hours later.    

Veloso was caught in April 2010 at Yogyakarta airport in Indonesia with 2.6 kilos of heroin sewn into the lining of a bag, according to BBC News.

She was sentenced to death for drug trafficking in October that year but she has always maintained that she was tricked and that she was convinced by Maria Cristina Sergio, the daughter of one of her godparents, to travel to Indonesia to start a new job as a maid.

The two women first travelled to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia in 2010. Veloso claims that Sergio's male friends gave her new clothes and the bag.

Veloso then flew to Yogyakarta where she was caught.

In a letter to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III released to the media over the weekend, Veloso said: "We're poor and I wanted to change our life but I could never commit the crime they have accused me of."

The Philippine government launched two appeals to Indonesia in the past two months for a judicial review of Veloso's case.

In its first appeal heard in March, it argued that Veloso did not understand what was going on during her trial as she was given an incompetent translator -- she apparently did not even know she had been sentenced to death. The appeal was rejected.

It launched its second appeal last week, arguing that Philippine police investigations showed Veloso may have been the victim of a drug syndicate. But Indonesia dismissed that too as it only allows one appeal for a judicial review.

Veloso's case drew widespread public sympathy in the Philippines, which does not have the death penalty.

Hundreds of activists held vigils outside the Indonesian embassy in Manila, and local media gave Veloso's case prominent coverage.

One reason why she commanded such support was that her circumstances were familiar to many in the Philippines, where it is common for women to escape poverty by seeking work abroad as domestic helpers.

On Friday, Veloso was sent to Nusakambangan prison island, where the executions were to be carried out, sparking last-ditch appeals by the Philippines.

On Monday, Aquino met Indonesian officials, including President Joko Widodo, on the sidelines of a regional meeting in Malaysia to discuss Veloso's case.

Philippine officials said that the next day, hours before Veloso was due to be executed, Aquino called Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. Aquino proposed keeping Veloso alive so that she could testify against drug traffickers.

Around 11 p.m. local time on Tuesday, Sergio is reported to have shown up at a police station in the Philippines.

Her appearance seems to have sealed the deal. Indonesia gave Veloso an 11th-hour reprieve, saying she was needed to testify against a "perpetrator suspected of human trafficking".

Since 2010, Veloso and her family have said Sergio was to blame for Veloso's situation.

Philippine police also recently said their investigations found that Veloso may have been tricked and recommended that charges be brought against Sergio and two others.

Sergio has also maintained her innocence, saying she was only helping Veloso look for a job.

Philippine police told GMA News that Sergio had not given herself up but rather turned herself in seeking police protection, claiming that she had received numerous death threats. Ms Sergio is now in protective custody.

Mary Jane Veloso has since been transferred back to a prison in Yogyakarta, according to Indonesian media.

Many were caught by surprise by the reprieve and several newspapers in the Philippines mistakenly printed front pages and headlines on Wednesday reporting her execution.

President Widodo said her reprieve was only "a postponement [of the execution], not an annulment".

But Veloso's family and many in the Philippines continue to celebrate. Activists gathered outside the Indonesian embassy in Manila cheered early on Wednesday morning upon hearing the news, and the hashtag #MaryJaneLives quickly trended on Twitter.

Veloso's mother Celia told reporters: "A miracle has happened to my child."

What happens next is unclear.

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