May 09, 2015

Ordinary people stand up for their rights

Celia and Cesar Veloso are admirable parents who wouldn't give up the fight to bring their daughter, condemned overseas Filipino worker Mary Jane, back to the Philippines – alive, safe and free -- against seemingly insurmountable odds. 

They were up against an international drug syndicate, recruiting poor and desperate men and women on the promise of good-paying jobs abroad, who end up as unwitting drug mules and when caught, languish on death row, in countries that impose capital punishment for drug trafficking. They only knew about the syndicate through Mary Jane’s illegal recruiter, Ma. Cristina Sergio, and her live-in partner, Julius Lacanilao, who warned them from the beginning to keep quiet about their daughter’s plight and not to seek help either from the government or mass media on pain of being “dealt with” by the drug syndicate and worsening Mary Jane’s situation.

When the Velosos summoned the courage to seek help from government agencies they were met by indifference, even disdain.   Government functionaries were unmoved by their pleas for help for their daughter when she was arrested and was being tried in an Indonesian court.  Concerned government agencies, foremost of which are the DFA and PDEA, continued to drag their feet and failed to take decisive action even when she was already convicted and handed down the death penalty.  They finally scrambled to take legal and diplomatic last-ditch efforts when Mary Jane faced imminent death by firing squad at which time local and international mass media had already trained the spotlight on her case.

The Velosos are what would be called "masa".  They are from poor peasant stock, trying to make ends meet by resorting to odd jobs and the proverbial attempts to land jobs overseas to break the cycle of poverty, lack of education and joblessness.  Mary Jane was easy prey to illegal recruiters and since she didn’t even have the money to pay for the necessary papers and an airplane ticket to work abroad, to being hoodwinked to carry illegal drugs across national borders.  When she run afoul of Indonesian law, she was helpless, not having the resources, the connections and the faculties to navigate the legal labyrinth in a foreign country much less defend herself and prove her innocence or victimization.

But Celia and Cesar did what they could with whatever resources they could muster.  They kept their wits about them, communicated with Mary Jane and approached the PDEA and local government authorities to run after Sergio and Lacanilao.  They asked Mary Jane to send even just a handwritten account of what happened to her because they were told by authorities that they could not act without it.  Mary Jane did so twice but for some reason her letters were pilfered and her account was missing.

The Velosos were eventually able to visit Mary Jane together with her two children.  Jail wardens who had become Mary Jane’s friends put up the money to bring her family to Indonesia.  When the Velosos approached the DFA for help in obtaining passports, they were met with mocking disbelief that they could “afford” to travel.  They were also advised, incorrectly, that they could only visit their daughter if they were given explicit permission to do so by Indonesian authorities.  But they persisted and refused to be intimidated or misled by the government bureaucrats who dealt with them.  They were able to talk to Mary Jane and get her version of what happened.

Things started moving fast when the Velosos learned that Mary Jane’s execution was already scheduled for April 28.  Only an international meeting to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first large-scale Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia on April 19 to 24 had provided a temporary respite since the Indonesian government did not want to hold the executions during this time.  Local mass media put the Velosos in touch with the OFW advocates’ group Migrante International.  The latter contacted the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and by April 7, the pro bono legal services of its lawyers were engaged by the Veloso family.

This is the train of events from the time Migrante and NUPL got involved:  On April 8, upon the advice of NUPL, Sergio’s picture was made public by Migrante; the latter called for government to immediately take Sergio into custody.  On April 16 and 17, the NUPL wrote PDEA, NBI and the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT) with attached sworn statements of Mary Jane’s family and the transcript of her own handwritten account (the original copy of which was lodged in the Philippine embassy in Jakarta but is still nowhere to be found up to now) asking that the appropriate investigation be conducted against Sergio.  On April 22, immediately after conferring with Indonesian lawyers in Jakarta, NUPL asked IACAT for certification of status of any investigation against Sergio. 

Meanwhile Migrante, Gabriela, the Promotion of Church People’s Response (PCPR) and many other support groups stepped up protest actions at the DFA and the Indonesian Embassy and mass petition signing to “Save Mary Jane”.  Chapters of Migrante in other countries swung into action and also organized mass actions at Indonesian embassies.  NUPL coordinated with the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) in mobilizing human rights activists and international institutions and democratic personalities to call for a stop to Mary Jane’s execution.

Perhaps most critically, Indonesian migrant labor, human rights and specially women’s rights activists, took up the cudgels for Mary Jane and zealously undertook actions, from mass lobbying to dialogues with high government officials including President Widodo, to draw parallels between Mary Jane’s case and those of hundreds of Indonesians also facing severe punishment, if not execution, abroad but who are in fact victims of human trafficking and miscarriage of justice.

It must be underscored that prior to the filing of the first motion for judicial review of Mary Jane’s conviction on 19 January 2015, her Indonesian lawyers had already asked the Philippine embassy to ask concerned government agencies in the country to investigate Sergio. PDEA reportedly visited Mary Jane around March 29 but the PDEA report was translated into Bahasa by the Philippine embassy and submitted to her Indonesian lawyers only on April 23.

The first judicial review was rejected and a second motion for judicial review was filed by Indonesian lawyers on April 24, four days before her scheduled execution but this was also rejected.   Sergio reportedly surrendered to Philippine police the morning of April 28. Indonesian President Widodo ordered the stay of execution close to midnight of April 28.

On May 5, Sergio and partner were arrested and their inquest took place. The Justice Secretary herself stated there was formidable evidence that Mary Jane had been tricked into bringing illegal drugs into Indonesia by a syndicate that had been, in the first place, engaged in large-scale human trafficking.

So far, Celia and Cesar Veloso have been vindicated in their dogged efforts to prove Mary Jane’s innocence.  Their unwavering call for accountability of government agencies and personnel responsible, by their criminal negligence, for Mary Jane’s conviction and death sentence cannot remain unheeded. #

Published in Business World
11 May 2015


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