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Tragic story of death-row maid caught up in Asia’s war on drugs

She has become a cause célèbre in both the country of her detention and that of her birth. Condemned to death on drug-smuggling charges, she was temporarily reprieved hours before her execution, but still languishes on death row in an Indonesian prison. And last week the skies darkened again over Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipino maid whose plight has captured the imagination of two populations that know all about the vulnerability of migrant workers.

After the Philippines’ president, the newly installed Rodrigo Duterte, visited Jakarta, it was reported that he had given his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, the go-ahead to execute her. Duterte has begun a ferocious and bloody war on drugs in the Philippines. That change of political direction has, it seems, led to yet another twist in the tortured tale of a woman who lost control of her life from the moment she entered Indonesia in 2010, hoping, she has said, to take up a job in domestic service.

Tragic story of death-row maid caught up in Asia’s war on drugs
Tragic story of death-row maid caught up in Asia’s war on drugs

Amid public outrage in the Philippines, Widodo subsequently clarified that Duterte had said: “Please, go ahead with the process in line with the law in Indonesia,” without naming Veloso. Few of her supporters were reassured. “We demand an immediate explanation from President Duterte … duty-bound to defend the rights of Filipinos overseas, especially drug-trafficking victims like Mary Jane,” said Migrante International, a group that campaigns for the Veloso family.

Born to an impoverished family in the northern city of Cabanatuan, Veloso married at 18 but later separated from her husband. She moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2009 to earn money for her two young sons in the Philippines.

Veloso says that she had to flee Dubai after an attempted rape and was then duped into smuggling drugs into Indonesia. Her case has become the focus of sympathy in both the Philippines and Indonesia, where many families have loved ones working abroad, often in poor conditions with abusive employers. Before the original date set for her execution last April, more than 200,000 signatures from 127 countries were collected for a #SaveMaryJane petition.

Veloso says that a woman called Maria Kristina Sergio, the daughter of one of her godparents, told her to move to Indonesia for a maid’s job in 2010. In an account that Sergio disputes, Veloso says the woman gave her new clothes and a bag that she says she was unaware had 2.6kg (5.7lb) of heroin sewn into it. “We’re poor and I wanted to change our life, but I could never commit the crime they have accused me of,” Veloso wrote last year in a letter to the then president, Benigno Aquino.

Her legal team launched two appeals in Indonesia, one that argued she did not have a competent translator, and a second saying she was scammed. Both were rejected.

As her April 2015 execution date approached, protesters in the Philippines and Indonesia rallied to save her and hundreds of people held vigils outside the Indonesian embassy in Manila. Even world boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao made a public plea for her life.

Two days before Veloso’s execution date, her family was allowed a visit. She explained to her sons that she would not be coming home. Her youngest child, six-year-old Mark Darren, said he would try to think that “Mama is in heaven”.

Then Indonesia shot dead eight people, including two Australians, part of the Bali Nine heroin-smuggling ring, four Nigerians, a Brazilian and an Indonesian. But not Veloso, although several newspapers in the Philippines reported she was dead. The hashtag “maryjanelives” trended on Twitter across the Philippines and Indonesia.

The reprieve was down to an unexpected turn of events in her homeland. Veloso’s alleged trafficker, Sergio, had handed herself in to police hours before the execution. And Aquino, invoking a regional treaty that compels nations to co-operate on transnational crime, asked Indonesia to keep Veloso alive. He said she was needed to testify in the case against Sergio and another man, now accused of trafficking, illegal recruitment and fraud.

Indonesia’s president insisted that the execution was merely postponed, but the campaign for clemency had new grounds for hope.

A year on, the accession of Duterte to the presidency has again changed the dynamics of Veloso’s case. Duterte’s first three months in office have been dominated by a bloody crackdown that has left 3,526 drug dealers and addicts dead, most of them in extrajudicial killings by vigilante groups, actions that were publicly encouraged by Duterte before he was elected.

Senator Leila de Lima, who has been leading a senate hearing into the killings and is one of the main domestic critics of Duterte, said that she was “sad and heartbroken that the president will throw away all our efforts to save a life just like that, when it is still in his power to request the holding off of the execution”. But it was no surprise, she added, that Veloso’s life might seem of no worth to an administration that had adopted judicial or extrajudicial executions as “government policy”.

Even Duterte has said that fighting for Veloso’s life would sit badly with his drugs crackdown. “It would have left a bad taste in the mouth to be talking about having a strong posture against drugs and here you are begging for something,” he told reporters, adding that he told Widodo he supported the death penalty in Indonesia. Capital punishment was outlawed in the Philippines in 2006.

Veloso’s legal team told the Observer it was very concerned. “Mary Jane is a victim of dire poverty, of lack of real opportunities for a decent job, of pernicious drug and human trafficking. The law may be the law, but it should not be blind or deaf to reality,” lawyer Edre Olalia wrote in an email. “As the leader of this nation and as the pater familias of all Filipinos, President Duterte is expected to rise to his bounden duty and fight for her, and fight hard as he does for all victims of this transnational infection.”

Widodo’s reported conversation with Duterte has reinvigorated public interest in Veloso’s case and the office of Indonesia’s attorney general said last week that she would not be killed in the next wave of executions. The judge in the case involving Sergio said that she would fly to Indonesia this month to get a deposition from Veloso in her prison cell. Veloso’s supporters believe that a trial can vindicate her, if it can prove she was used as a pawn.

“Winning the case will codify Mary Jane’s innocence and erase all doubts that she should be spared from execution,” said Garry Martinez, chair of Migrante International.

Ruperto Santos, a prominent Roman Catholic bishop in the Philippines, said that “conflicting reports regarding the actions of President Duterte” on the Veloso case were regrettable. “Let us continue to pray for her, that her life be spared.”

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