THE Palace took credit Wednesday for obtaining a stay of execution for convicted drug trafficker Mary Jane Veloso, who was spared the firing squad at the lat minute.
“The initiative at that time became a minute-by-minute game because we knew that the 72 hours expired at 7 o’clock (Tuesday evening, April 28),” said Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, secretary to the Cabinet, during a press briefing in Malacañang.
Almndras said President Benigno Aquino III, while in Langkawi Tuesday afternoon, even broke protocol to talk directly to the Indonesian foreign minister to propose that Veloso help identify the syndicate members who duped her into bringing a bag filled with 2.6 kilos of heroin into Indonesia.
“It was the President himself who talked to the Indonesian foreign minister...[who] was quite surprised because normally that’s not done. But when the President did that, she promised: ‘Yes, Mr. President, I will immediately relay your message to both the President [Joko Widodo] and to whoever else needs to know in Jakarta’,” Almendras said.
Normally, presidents only speak to each other after the meeting has been arranged by their foreign ministers, Almendras said. In breaking protocol, the President sped up the transmission of the message, he added.
Almendras said Veloso has already been transferred back to the prison from the island where she was supposed to be executed.
“By the mission in Jakarta, with whom we’ve all been working with over the past weeks, Mary Jane has already arrived in her original prison in Yogyakarta. She is off the island this morning,” he said.
On Monday night, the President’s order was that they would not stop and would do everything they could until the Indonesians executed Veloso, Almendras said.
On Tuesday morning, the President was to go to the conference on the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area, before heading off to meet the media in Langkawi.
While the meeting was still going on, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima made a phone call and sent an e-mail to the Palace informing them of the new position.
“Just before the coffee with the media, the President called a quick huddle and then there was a discussion. It was at that time that the decision was, ‘let’s pursue this angle now’,” said Almendras.
The key was to convince the Indonesians that the government was on top of the situation with Veloso’s recruiter here in the Philippines to merit a stay of execution, Almendras said. Before the President departed Langkawi, his instruction was to make sure that De Lima had enough information to transmit to her counterpart in Indonesia, he added.
Almendras said the final request to the Indonesians was to make sure De Lima got a chance to explain the merits of the case.
A breaking news report by one of the agencies said that their counterpart in Indonesia, the Cabinet secretary in Indonesia, had acknowledged that there was new information that could affect the decision to execute Veloso.
Almendras said the they tried to reach several Indonesian officials through Tuesday night with no success, but Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told them that a memo De Lima had prepared had reached the right officials and became the basis for their discussions.
Almendras dismissed criticism that the administration was grabbing credit for saving Veloso, saying his account was factual.
He also denied accusations that the government waited to the last minute to act, because the President worked on Veloso’s behalf since 2011, when the Supreme Court upheld Veloso’s death sentence.
“The President’s actions started way back in 2011 and that time it was very effective,” said Almendras. He said it was a credit to the Foreign Affairs Department, acting on the President’s initiative, that the execution had been moved to 2015.
“The DFA already released the timeline and the details of all their actions,” he said. “It proves the fact that this is not a last-minute action.”
“On the issue of credit-grabbing, I can face anyone...,” Almendras told reporters at the Palace briefing. “Everything I say to you now is true. And you can even ask your counterparts in Langkawi, enjoying the beach in Langkawi, because they were there. They saw.”
“So I don’t think we should argue about who gets credit or who did a bigger job. I think I’d rather say that everybody helped and somehow it all came down together and it worked well. I’m glad that... Even if Secretary de Lima did not get a chance to talk to the attorney general, which was my extreme desperation last night, the decision still went this way because they were able to read the memo that Secretary De Lima sent and they were able to deliberate and discuss it,” he said.
But a labor group in Indonesia said a meeting they had with Widodo might have helped change his mind about executing Veloso.
The news channel ANC reported that Anis Hidayah, executive director of Migrant Care Indonesia, said she met on Tuesday afternoon with Widodo, who unexpectedly asked about Veloso’s case.
Hidayah said they told Widodo that Veloso was a victim of human trafficking and that the same thing was happening to many Indonesian migrant workers abroad who face the death penalty.
Hidayah said they wanted to make sure Widodo was informed about the vulnerability of migrant workers, particularly those fro the Philippines and Indonesia, to drug smuggling syndicates.
She also told the Indonesian president that Veloso’s recruiter, Ma. Cristina Sergio, had already surrendered to the police.
Widodo’s initial response was that other drug couriers would also claim that they were victims.
But Hidayah, who said she was crying when she talked to Widodo, told him, “If we kill the victims and tomorrow we find new evidence, how can we be responsible for this, after the execution?”
A spokesman for Indonesia’s Attorney General’s Office said Veloso’s execution has been delayed in response to a request from Manila, after her recruiter gave herself up to the police in the Philippines Tuesday.
De Lima on Wednesday said the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty among ASEAN members helped secure a reprieve for Veloso “just in the nick of time.”
She said her department wrote Indonesia’s Attorney General H.M. Prasetyo and Minister for Justice and Human Rights Dr. Amir Syamsuddin invoking the MLAT, several hours before the scheduled execution of Veloso and eight other drug convicts by firing squad.
“We invoked the ASEAN MLAT to allow us to get more statements from Mary Jane, who stands as witness and complainant in the human trafficking and illegal recruitment cases now pending with the NPS (National Prosecution Service),” De Lima said in a press conference.
De Lima appealed to the Indonesian officials to stop the execution of Veloso because it would make the pursuit of cases against recruiter Ma. Cristina Sergio, her live-in partner Julius Lacanilao and a man of African descent identified only as Ike futile.
Sergio and Lacanilao are facing illegal recruitment, human trafficking and estafa by swindling before the Justice Department after a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) probe showed that Veloso was their victim.
“We invoked the MLAT in terms of making her available for preliminary investigation and in eventual trial. Mary Jane is the complainant in these cases and if she dies, these cases would no longer prosper… And they respect our legal processes,” De Lima said.
“It is a wonderful feeling to save a life just in the nick of time,” De Lima said.
She said she would go to Indonesia to discuss the legal process in Veloso’s case.
De Lima also said that she believes the surrender of Sergio and Lacanilao the other day helped the government’s appeal.
De Lima, who stayed up until the wee hours with Del Rosario, said they were relieved after learning that the execution of Veloso was called off on the last minute.
De Lima acknowledged that the reprieve was temporary, but said she expects the death sentence to be suspended indefinitely, or until the case against her recruiters is completed.
“I am not sure if there is still available avenue under the legal processes in Indonesia because we are not familiar with their laws. But there are political and diplomatic options like the possibility of a grant of executive clemency or commutation of sentence,” De Lima said.
“If it will be proven that she was indeed just a victim, I think that will help in her case in Indonesia,” she added.
Del Rosario gave credit to President Aquino for Veloso’s stay of execution.
“The President had undertaken all avenues, including diplomatic and legal means, to do what he can for Mary Jane. The President believes that every human life is invaluable. At the last minute, a stay had been granted,” Del Rosario said.
Del Rosario also thanked the government of Indonesia for the favorable consideration of the Philippine government’s request.
Veloso was the only woman listed to be executed alongside eight other foreigners convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia despite appeals from their governments and families. Two Australians, four Nigerians, a Brazilian, and an Indonesian, were executed Tuesday.
Sergio, Veloso’s recruiter, was transferred Wednesday to police headquarters in Camp Crame because of persistent death threats, police said.
“We decided to bring Ms. Sergio to Camp Crame to ensure her safety,” said Chief Supt. Ronald Santos, officer-in-charge of the police Region 3 office.
On Tuesday, Sergio appeared at the Nueva Ecija Provincial Police Office to seek police protection.
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