Whatever happened to Mary Jane Veloso?

CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani - Philstar.com

About a year ago, the case of Mary Jane Veloso—convicted in Indonesia for drug trafficking after she had obviously been set up—exploded in the news. Various left-wing groups and NGOs sought the release of the former OFW from prison, and President Benigno Aquino III himself managed to get the Indonesian government to stay her execution.

So what has happened to her since? As we shift our attention to a new administration, Veloso continues to languish in prison. A year after her eleventh-hour reprieve, she has inched no closer to freedom. She and her family’s hopes for her freedom remain bogged down in the all-too-familiar quagmire of Filipino court cases. The case against the trafficker who had tricked her into carrying drugs in her luggage also languishes in a Philippine court. But the successful prosecution of this drug trafficker will actively seal her fate. It can, at the very least, commute Veloso’s death sentence by proving that she had been a duped victim rather than a drug mule. Following the trail of her case away from the media glare allows us to see how it is symptomatic of our country’s sluggish justice system. More pressingly, her case also sheds light on the deep inadequacy of social services available to millions of overseas Filipino workers.

In 2010, 25-year-old Veloso was apprehended at an Indonesian airport carrying 2.6 kilograms of heroin in the lining of her suitcase. She has consistently maintained that she had no prior knowledge of its existence, claiming that her recruiter—now recognized as her god sister, Maria Cristina Sergio—had duped her into smuggling it.

After a brief trial, Veloso was sentenced to death by firing squad. What followed was five years of incarceration in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, throughout which the Philippine government’s attempts to appeal for clemency were set aside. Public knowledge of the case remained dormant until 2015, when news arrived that Indonesian president Joko Widodo had finally rejected appeals for clemency—ensuring that, after years of uncertainty, Veloso would soon be put to death.

In April of the same year, Philippine law enforcement charged Sergio and her partner Julius Lacanilao with illegal recruitment, estafa, and qualified human trafficking. As the date of Veloso’s execution drew nearer, the Indonesian government weathered strong pressures from Filipino and Indonesian civil society groups, since the plight of abused migrant workers resonates deeply in both countries. A day before the execution, Sergio’s voluntary surrender prompted Aquino to invoke the ASEAN Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), obliging Indonesia to offer Veloso as a state witness in the ensuing human trafficking case. Thus, in a surprise move, Widodo granted her a temporary reprieve—a few hours before she was due to face the firing squad.

Immediately, then-Justice Secretary Leila de Lima established a special 20-person task force to build the case that could prove that Veloso had been a victim of human trafficking. However, in the year that has followed, the joy and relief that accompanied her reprieve have since receded into a protracted trial with no end in sight.

A further complication is that Veloso has already been convicted by an Indonesian court, exhausting her options for appeal. Activists fear her execution even as the trial is ongoing—especially if it is overly delayed—as she is only being kept alive for her testimony. What’s more, there is no guarantee she will escape death row even if her traffickers are convicted.

Last month, Indonesian officials announced Veloso’s exclusion from the next group of criminals due for execution, as their government awaits the outcome of her case. However, they have also said they “are ready” if and when her execution is ordered. “[P]erhaps the verdict can be new evidence to appeal for clemency from the president,” Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo told Rappler. “But surely Veloso will not be free from punishment… The fact is that she smuggled drugs to Indonesia, and she was caught red handed at the airport.”

For its part, the Department of Justice (DOJ) recently requested that the Indonesian Ministry of Law and Human Rights allow the Philippine government to take Veloso’s testimony through deposition by written interrogatories under the MLAT, and are currently awaiting a resolution for this motion.

Earlier this month, at a hearing of the case in the Nueva Ecija regional trial court, only one witness took the stand—Veloso’s mother, Celia. Jenalyn Paraiso, one of the three complainants, did not appear because, according to Mic Catuira of Migrante International, she fears for her life. The hearing came to a close in under an hour, with the next session set for two months from now.

This is a telling glimpse of the Veloso case and the justice system itself. In April of last year, Aquino had pressed the courts to expedite the case, while reportedly telling the Indonesian government that it should take roughly two months. Fifteen months later, only four individuals have testified—with 25 others yet to be presented. Many are the accused’s character witnesses, testifying to their good moral character in hopes of discrediting the accusations. Following the latest hearing, a visibly distressed Celia lambasted the snail’s pace of the proceedings, fearing that she and her husband—both sick with diabetes—will die with their daughter’s case still unresolved.

Understanding the full context of Veloso’s situation requires looking beyond the bounds of the last six years. She is the youngest of five children, born to a poor family in Nueva Ecija. Her parents, Celia and Cesar, both lack dependable jobs, earning only from selling plastic-ware out of their pushcart and collecting discarded bottles and plastic to sell to junk shops.

Not long after finishing a single year of high school, Veloso married Michael Candelaria and had two children, Mark Darren and Mark Daniel. The marriage was brief, leaving Veloso burdened with the responsibility of providing for her sons on her own. She then decided to work as a domestic helper in Dubai, lured—as millions of Filipinos tend to be—by the prospect of greener pastures abroad. But she returned after a brief 10 months because, apart from earning only a fraction of the promised salary, her employer reportedly tried to rape her. It was then that Sergio offered Veloso work as a domestic helper in Kuala Lumpur. When she arrived there, however, Sergio informed her that the job was no longer available, but there was another one in Indonesia that perhaps she would like to take instead—thus setting off the chain of events leading to Sergio’s court case here and Veloso’s consignment to death row.

Because of their socioeconomic status, Veloso’s plight has been a particularly heavy blow to her family. “We are poor and we have nothing to pay for her freedom,” Cesar told UCA News. “If only we were rich, I would sell everything that I have to set her free.” On top of their medical conditions and the emotional distress brought on by the case, both Veloso’s parents were dealt an additional blow by Typhoons Lando and Nona, which completely devastated their home and the pushcart from which they peddle their merchandise.

Veloso’s children, currently living with their father, are now both covered by conditional cash transfers—the government’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program. However, Migrante contends that Mark Daniel still needs psychosocial intervention because of his anti-social behavior and poor performance in school.

Following her daughter’s stayed execution, Celia drew strong criticism from the public for denouncing what she considered to be the Philippine government’s inaction. She was accused of being shameless, walang hiya, and ingrata.

But her anger is a also response to the history of government programs that have encouraged the export of Filipino labor since the 1970s, while simultaneously failing to provide them with adequate social services. Lacking opportunities at home, workers are compelled to leave their families and take jobs abroad, making them—particularly low-skilled women—vulnerable to abusive employers, racism, emotional distress, and sexual exploitation.

The Philippines today has one of the world’s largest migratory populations, according to the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, deploying 1.8 million OFWs and remitting $25.76 billion in 2015 alone. As of last May, the Department of Foreign Affairs reported 3,800 Filipinos jailed across the globe—92 of them on death row—mostly for murder and drug-related offenses.

The Aquino administration made significant strides in addressing human trafficking—particularly in the area of prosecution. Yet the inordinate complications within our judicial system keep such cases from moving quickly and effectively. Slow litigation is blatantly unfavorable to the poor, who cannot afford to spend years on trial. It quickly exhausts their meager resources even as it bars them from holding down stable jobs.

According to the 2015 United States’ Trafficking in Persons Report, our government also lacks formal policies for safeguarding victims who elect to testify against traffickers: “Although officials offered victim-witness protection against reprisals through a protection, security, and benefit program, the program failed to fully cover victims’ needs, and the lengthy approval process discouraged victims from applying for assistance.”

Moreover, the government’s fixation on prosecution has come at the expense of advocacy, prevention, and protection. Under the outgoing administration, the Department of Social Welfare and Development received a pittance, compared to what was allotted to the DOJ—despite the fact that the former is the lead agency for the protection, recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of trafficking survivors. At the same time, no funds were allocated for advocacy and communication, making meaningful preventive measures difficult.

Having run its course through the Aquino administration, Veloso’s case will now be inherited by Rodrigo Duterte, whose stance on OFW protection and welfare won him strong support from the community. OFWs would do well to remember, however, his vehement, iron-fisted stance against illegal drugs. In an interview with News5 last month, the president-elect asserted that he was not keen on extending assistance to OFWs on death row for acting as mules, saying, “Wala akong magagawa. Sorry, if it is true, kung totoo talagang nahuli ka, they do not invent [such] charges.” Asked if he believed the defense of those who, like Veloso, maintain that they smuggled the drugs unwittingly, he replied, “Hindi, alam nila.”

Should Duterte make good on his OFW platform, it will ideally involve addressing the culture of impunity that continues to exist among government officials and personnel involved in trafficking, and dedicating greater resources to prevention and rehabilitation. Perhaps the most important course of action, however, is to begin taking the steps to curb the country’s dependence on the remittances that—while powering our economy—continue to leave our OFWs vulnerable to exploitation. 

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