ASEAN groups plead for clemency for Filipina maid as executions loom in Indonesia

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Women’s groups and representatives of other civil society organisations have appealed to the Indonesian president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) to spare the life of Filipina single mother Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso, who is due to be executed within days for carrying 2.6 kilos of heroin into Indonesia.

The appeal for clemency was made by delegates attending the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Kumpur.

Veloso is one of ten people due to be executed on the prison island of Nusakambangan. The others are Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, Frenchman Serge Areski Atlaoui, Ghanaian Martin Anderson, Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte, Nigerians Raheem Agbaje Salami, Okwudili Oyatanze, and Sylvester Obiekwe Nwolise, and Indonesian Zainal Abidin bin Mgs Mahmud Badarudin. All have been convicted of drugs offences.

Veloso was transferred to the island yesterday (Friday) and foreign embassies have been asked to send representatives to the jail on Nusakambangan today, which suggests the executions are imminent. Indonesia is obliged to give 72 hours’ notice of executions, which are by a firing squad.

In an open letter, a group of organisations from ASEAN countries, including advocates for women’s and migrants’ rights, appealed to ASEAN heads of state “to join the international clamour” to save Veloso’s life.

The groups said that Veloso was a victim of human trafficking and “the lack of access to justice in the region”.

Thirty-year-old Veloso, who has two children, aged six and ten, was a domestic worker in Dubai from 2009 to 2010. She returned to the Philippines after someone in the house tried to rape her. In April, 2010, she was illegally recruited to work as a maid in Malaysia.

“When she arrived in Malaysia, she was told that her supposed job was no longer available, but she could still find work in the country. After a few days, her recruiter sent her to Indonesia, allegedly for a week’s holiday,” the campaigning groups stated in their letter.

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Veloso was arrested at Indonesia’s Yogyakarta airport after the authorities found 2.6 kilos of heroin in her suitcase. She was found guilty and sentenced to death later that year. She says the drugs were planted in her bag without her knowledge.

Veloso’s case was submitted for judicial review, but her appeal was rejected by the Indonesian Supreme Court in March 2014. The Philippine government has filed a second appeal for judicial review on behalf of Veloso.

The ASEAN groups said in their letter: “Veloso, like many ASEAN women, was driven to labour migration by extreme poverty, landlessness, and enormous pressure as the sole caretaker of her children. Like many ASEAN women, she sought to employ all means to cater to the education, healthcare, food and other needs of her loved ones.”

Veloso was not provided with a lawyer or translator when she was arrested, the groups state and, during her trial, the court-provided interpreter was not licensed by the Association of Indonesian Translators, and her lawyer was a public defender provided by the Indonesian police. “During the course of her trials, she had extreme difficulty understanding any of the legal proceedings.”

Veloso was convicted just six months after she was arrested. Public prosecutors asked the court to sentence her to life imprisonment, but the judges handed down a death sentence.

The secretary general of the human rights organisation Karapatan, in the Philippines, Cristina Palabay, says Jokowi has twice rejected appeals for clemency for Veloso.

“Mary Jane was being used as a drug mule. She came from a very poor peasant family in a province where the main source of livelihood is planting and selling onions. She is separated from her husband and has been raising two children along with her immediate family.”

Palabay says Veloso is one of more than 100 migrant Filipinos on death row around the world. Seven Filipinos have already been executed in other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

One case was that of Flor R. Contemplacion, a domestic worker hanged after being convicted of murder in Singapore in March 1995. The execution went ahead despite a personal plea from the then president of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, to the Singaporean government to stop it. “This is like a second heartbreak for us,” Palabay said, unable to hold back her tears.

The support is very much the same now, Palabay says. “It has come from the United Nations and the civil society groups. Even the Catholic Church has appealed for the planned execution to be stopped. We are hoping against hope that the outcome will not be the same.”

Palabay says both the Indonesian and Philippine governments are accountable in Mary Jane’s case. There are migrant Filipino workers in more countries than there are member states of the United Nations, she says. “This has been going on for more than twenty years because of the labour export policy, driven by neo-liberal economic policies.”

Indonesia, Palabay says, has shown a “gross disregard” for several UN Human Rights Council resolutions. “The resolutions say the death penalty should be imposed only, and sparingly, in the most heinous of cases, which does not include drug-related cases.”

Both governments, Palabay says, have violated the international convention on the rights of migrant workers and their families.

Magdalena Sitorus from the Human Rights Commission in Indonesia says the commission has already appealed to Jokowi for clemency in Veloso’s case. Many people are concerned about the case, she says, and organisations have gathered in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, to pray for Veloso. There is an ongoing vigil by various organisations in the Philippines.

Sitorus also struggled to hold back her emotions when she explained that Veloso’s relatives said she was ready to face execution because of her religious faith, but was worried about what would happen to her relatives. “Mary Jane is the youngest of the family.” Sitorus said, “and has always been very concerned about them, and took care of them.”

She tells how Veloso misunderstood the judge when he asked her if she regretted what she did. “She said she had no regret, but she had misunderstood the meaning of the word.”

Helda Khasmy from the Union of Indonesian Women says that Veloso sent a letter to Jokowi, asking him to save her from the death penalty. She appealed to Jokowi as a mother of two young children who needed her.

She wrote: “I believe you have a strong conscience and the wisdom to give me a punishment that is humane.”

Khasmy also cites Veloso’s case as reflecting the condition of women, not only in Indonesia, but throughout ASEAN. “Poverty is caused by the exploitation of resources and people in ASEAN countries by multi-national corporations. This forces many women to migrate. They are then used as cheap labour and are preyed upon by human traffickers and drugs syndicates.”

Twitter storm

Indonesian celebrity chef Rahung Nasution has taken up Veloso’s cause, tweeting: “Jokowi is not battling drugs. He is executing poor women, like the migrant workers in Saudi Arabia!!” He was referring to two Indonesian domestic workers executed in Saudi Arabia last week.

The chief editor of Indonesia’s feminist magazine Jurnal Perempuan (Women’s Journal), Dewi Candraningrum also said Veloso was a victim of trafficking. “Is My President a Murderer?” she tweeted.

Another Twitter user wrote: “I agree with death penalty for drug cases, as long as it’s for big-time drug dealers, not couriers or duped victims like #MaryJane”.

Another commented: “What if #MaryJane is innocent, can they bring back her life? When in doubt, err on the side of caution, esp if it is life at stake.”

On death row

The attorney-general has been waiting for all the legal processes of the ten death row inmates to be completed before announcing an execution date. Lawyers have been making last-ditch attempts to delay the executions, but the only outstanding appeal considered still valid by the attorney-general is for an Indonesian national.

There are reported to be 60 people on death row in Indonesia for drug offences.

Indonesia’s use of executions is escalating under Jokowi. Between 1999 and 2014, 27 people were executed, an average of fewer than two executions per year. Within Jokowi’s first 100 days in office, in January this year, Indonesia executed six people.

“We urge President Joko Widodo to save Mary Jane,” Helda Khasmy said. “She is not a criminal; she is a victim.”

Diena Haryana from the Indonesian Service for Peace organisation, Sejiwa, also appealed to Jokowi to show clemency towards Veloso, and to free her. “Even if we have just a day, we still have time, and there is still hope. Miracles can happen.”

There would be huge regret throughout Indonesia, she said, if the execution went ahead and one day it was proven that Veloso was not a drug dealer, but her children had to live their lives without their mother.

Palaby added: “If Mary Jane is that strong, despite all the difficulties that she is undergoing right now, then we should be strong, too, because that’s the only way that we can ensure that these things will not happen again in the future.”


Report to follow on the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum workshop about the death penalty.