By EDRE U. OLALIA
National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL)
Philippine private lawyers of Mary Jane and Veloso family
Although the cases of Flor Contemplacion and Mary Jane Veloso crept into the national consciousness under radically different circumstances, both of their narratives fundamentally show the culpability of a decrepit socio-economic system that has pushed millions of poor Filipinos to seek perceived better opportunities abroad.
In turn, however, their struggles have ushered various insights into how similar cases can be more effectively handled by progressive people’s organizations and lawyers’ groups in the future with the view of ending the iniquitous labor-export policy of the government.
Flor was a domestic worker in Singapore who was hanged on March 17, 1995 for allegedly murdering fellow Filipina domestic worker Delia Maga and the latter’s ward, three year old Nicholas Huang. A review of the events leading to the unfortunate conclusion of her case serves to highlight the factors that worked either in favor of or against her case – the same variables seen attending the recent case of Mary Jane whose fate still hangs in the balance after being granted a temporary reprieve from execution in Indonesia.
What worked for Flor?
Among the cited variables seen to have worked in favor of Flor is what seemed at first glance as more advantageous legal circumstances attending her case. To cite, whereas Mary Jane’s trial for the drug trafficking charges lodged against her in Indonesia in 2010 was concluded in only six months, Flor’s trial lasted two years. Moreover, Flor’s trial records, composed of 10 volumes, was available to her Filipino lawyers led by the late Romeo Capulong of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) with the present writer as a volunteer lawyer then.
The same cannot be said, however, for Mary Jane’s trial records because the said documents are reportedly not considered public documents under Indonesian law. These circumstances allowed Flor’s legal team to readily formulate a legal strategy based on useful information contained in the voluminous records of a two-year trial.
The nature of Flor’s case can also be seen to have worked to her advantage. Being non-drug related, her case was seen to have drawn more public sympathy, with people exploring alternative angles to the cold-blooded murder narrative advanced by the prosecution (at first a petty misunderstanding over presents to be brought home then to robbery) and affirmed by the Singaporean court.
In contrast, Mary Jane’s conviction for drug trafficking was pronounced in the context of Indonesia’s “war on drugs” and Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s avowal that the country’s drug problem has reached the status of a “national emergency.” Moreover, the crime that Flor allegedly committed was not a cross-border crime that presented complex legal issues. Mary Jane’s supposed offense, on the other hand, is characterized as cross-border, punishable pursuant to treaty and under multiple jurisdictions such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The latter’s case, thus, involved peculiar legal challenges that were absent in Flor’s case.
Flor’s case, in addition, benefited from the presence of scientific evidence that could have conclusively disputed her guilt for murder. Among this scientific evidence is the autopsy report of Maga which showed that she was still alive but probably unconscious when she was strangled to death, directly controverting the version of events advanced by the prosecution. Forensic evidence also established the absence of Flor’s fingerprints on various articles that she allegedly touched. In addition, the motive for killing Maga and the latter’s three year old ward was not clearly established. Meanwhile, the almost mathematical precision of the testimonies and other evidence supporting the prosecution’s theory bore the badges of potential fabrication.
Evidence of such nature was lacking in Mary Jane’s case where lawyers had to rely almost entirely on the testimonies of witnesses, with neither DNA tests having been conducted on the alleged possessor of the illicit drugs nor the chain of custody ever been established with certainty.
In Flor’s case, moreover, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Office of the Solicitor General openly, albeit ritualistically, supported and offered assistance to her Philippine private lawyers.
In Mary Jane’s case, however, the DFA has persistently treated her Philippine lawyers as mere interlopers, failing to provide assistance and even refusing to acknowledge their representation of Mary Jane and her family despite signed legal retainer agreements in Filipino, English and even Bahasa, three formal letters in a span of one month, and public calls. The Philippine embassy in Jakarta also consistently attempted to obstruct her Philippine lawyers’ unhampered and confidential access to Mary Jane and her family in the days leading to her suspended execution, largely placing them out of the loop from the blow by blow quick turn of events that were unfolding.
Flor’s case also generated a bigger, more widespread, organized as well as spontaneous show of support, sympathy, and condemnation from the Filipino public. Many ordinary people joined vigils held all around the country. Thousands eventually trooped to Flor’s wake and funeral when her body was brought back to the country. In Mary Jane’s case, on the other hand, demonstrations of public clamor, while substantial, was largely confined to protest-vigils held in front of the DFA and the Indonesian embassy.
What worked against Flor?
Conversely, Flor’s case was attended by several disadvantages. Among these disadvantages is her involuntary execution of a statement confessing to the crime she was charged with. Various news reports published during that time insinuated that Flor was even tortured in order to secure the cited confession which eventually served as basis for her conviction.
The Philippine embassy in Singapore even aggravated the situation by assuming her guilty or coaxed her to confess. In Mary Jane’s case, factotums in the DFA who directly handle OFW cases assumed dismissive and fatalistic attitudes on the inevitability of the death penalty.
Mary Jane, on the other hand, has consistently asserted before Indonesian forums that she was a mere victim who was duped by a drug trafficking syndicate into carrying luggage that turned out to contain 2.6 kilograms of heroin.
Mary Jane’s assertion that she was a victim of human trafficking would eventually serve as the pivotal legal argument that could serve as basis for further appeals before Indonesian courts. Under Indonesian law, a person found to be a victim of human trafficking is entitled to protection, consistent with its treaty obligations under the United Nations Protocol on Human
Trafficking of 2000. Such a pivotal legal argument was absent in the case of Flor, where the legal strategy employed by her Filipino lawyers relied mainly on factual assertions in the form of autopsy reports, forensic examinations, and testimonies of witnesses.
The human trafficking angle in the case of Mary Jane also effectively prompted – and rightly so – Indonesia’s President Widodo to grant her a temporary last-minute reprieve after learning that Mary Jane’s alleged recruiters, Cristina Sergio and Julius Lacanilao, supposedly voluntarily surrendered to Philippine authorities on the eve of her scheduled execution by firing squad.
The same element, which resonated with the experience of Indonesian migrant workers, also drew international attention towards Mary Jane’s case. The days leading to the suspended execution saw international rights groups, lawyers organizations, and international celebrities such as Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, rock icon Axl Rose, and actor Angelina Jolie calling on Widodo to stop the execution. That Mary Jane was slated for execution along with eight others of various nationalities also attracted international media attention – the kind of widespread international interest lacking in the seemingly isolated murder case of Flor who was executed singularly.
Meanwhile, Flor’s case suffered from the lack of a Philippine embassy-retained lawyer throughout the whole legal process in Singapore. While a local lawyer was appointed by the Singaporean court to assist Flor, the said counsel did not directly collaborate with Flor’s private Philippine lawyers. In Mary Jane’s case, the Philippine embassy in Indonesia was able to retain, albeit belatedly, the services of Rudyantho & Partners (R&P), an Indonesian law firm, during the appeals stage of her case. The collaboration between the foreign lawyers and the Filipino lawyers this time was active, transparent and direct. Both sets of counsels directly and constantly communicated with each other and cooperated particularly in preparing the petition for second judicial review of Mary Jane’s case onwards.
Moreover, the private Filipino legal team of Flor had a shorter time to intervene and launch a campaign to extricate her from death row. At the time of PILC’s engagement as Flor’s private Philippine counsel, only eight days remained before her scheduled execution. In contrast, the team of lawyers from NUPL which was retained by Mary Jane’s family on April 7, 2015, had three weeks to prepare, in collaboration with R&P, the legal interventions and multi-pronged representations necessary to spare Mary Jane from execution.
On the political front, meanwhile, Flor’s case presented several challenges. For one, Singapore, under the reign of the late strongman Lee Kwan Yew, was known as an autocratic state, with the civil rights of Singaporeans and foreigners frequently sacrificed before the altar of skewed development. Thus, appeals for clemency from several fronts fell on deaf ears, which were instead keen on regarding the clamor for the halting of Flor’s execution as foreign intrusion. In this respect, no known significant or trumpeted intervention from the Philippine government was registered and whatever state-to-state communication was made merely focused on raising humanitarian grounds instead of asserting Flor’s innocence.
On the other hand, the Indonesian government, under President Widodo’s administration, is currently anchored on a platform that “listens to human rights activists.” As such, the mass campaigns launched in the Philippines carried non-adversarial appeals for Widodo to exercise “mercy and compassion” as opposed to the more antagonistic approach of the campaigns during Flor’s time, which consisted of flag burnings and calls to boycott Singaporean trade. In light of this, the mass campaigns launched in the Philippines was also carried out by local migrants’ rights activists in Indonesia.
The families of Flor and Mary Jane also played major roles in both cases. In the case of Flor, however, the seeming lack of active and aggressive steps undertaken by her family to take up her case before Philippine authorities and media from the moment she was arrested in Singapore proved to be disadvantageous.
On the other hand, Mary Jane’s family, particularly her parents, Celia and Cesar Veloso, and her sister Marites, did the rounds of government offices, persistently sought help from various government agencies, and actively took part in the mass campaigns to save Mary Jane from death row. Mary Jane’s young sons appearing and appealing before media pulled the heartstrings of the public as opposed to Flor’s husband who was vilified as a supposed gambling addict and womanizer.
Technology also proved to be an element that highlights the divergence of Flor’s case from Mary Jane’s case. Flor’s lawyers, for one, had to contend with slower and more limited means of communication, relying on fax machines for the sending and receiving of important documents printed by noisy dot-matrix printers and using cumbersome landlines for getting in touch with Philippine and Singaporean authorities.
Mary Jane’s case, on the other hand, emerged during the proliferation of social media and benefitted from it. A change.org petition for her extrication from death row, for example, was circulated in Facebook and managed to gather more than 100,000 signatures in the span of only a few days from people in different countries, amplifying the calls of activists involved in the mass campaign launched on the ground. Her lawyers, meanwhile, relied on the internet in communicating with their counterparts in Indonesia as well as various social media applications in communicating with media and organizations here and in Indonesia.
While the differences between the cases of Flor and Mary Jane offer many potent insights, their commonalities equally portend the sorry state of affairs confronted by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and underline the need to intensify the bigger campaign to put an end to the government’s labor-export policy.
The similarities start with the obvious: Flor and Mary Jane are both mothers from very poor families. Flor managed to finish only her elementary education while Mary Jane was not able to finish her first year of high school. Because of the dire lack of decent employment in the country, both were forced to seek work abroad as domestic helpers in order to support their families.
Flor and Mary Jane are counted among the millions of Filipinos who sought or continue to seek better opportunities in other countries, sent there by an inutile government which persists in subscribing to an unsustainable economic model. Flor and Mary Jane are embodiments of an enraging contradiction – those brazenly tagged by the government as the country’s “modern day heroes” are among the last ones to receive assistance when they inconveniently cry for help.
Among the tell-tale signs of government neglect is that both cases were brought to the public’s attention and acted upon by government belatedly. Flor’s arrest was dated May 4, 1991, but government action came to light only a few months before March 11, 1995, the date of her execution. Mary Jane’s case, meanwhile, can be traced to her arrest on April 25, 2010 but was only publicized on March 30, 2015 when Migrante International – the same mass organization that catapulted the case of Flor and many others to public awareness – launched a campaign and which was complemented on April 7, 2015, when the NUPL was engaged to serve as the private Philippine counsel of her family.
Undoubtedly, the national and international attention and sustained media coverage was precipitated by the mass actions, appeals and even protests of progressive people’s organizations as well as the involvement and concern of church and lawyers organizations which were actively solicited in both cases even as the Philippine legislature was by and large deafeningly silent on this issue.
The long years spent by both women in foreign jails featured the same roughshod treatment they received from the DFA and the respective embassies. Full, timely and transparent information about Flor’s and Mary Jane’s cases were withheld from the families, their private lawyers, and migrants’ groups who stepped up to pick up the apparent slack of government. Applications for assistance were dismissed as hopeless, as in the case of a DFA lawyer who told Mary Jane’s mother that because of the amount of heroin supposedly retrieved from Mary Jane, any forum where they would appeal the case would still uphold her conviction and death sentence.
In both cases, moreover, the government’s appeal for clemency before the foreign governments involved relied solely on humanitarian considerations instead of assertions of its citizens’ innocence based on facts and applicable laws.
Meanwhile, Flor’s and Mary Jane’s private Philippine lawyers, instead of being accommodated and welcomed in the spirit of bona fide and transparent collaboration as well as principled cooperation as duly-authorized private counsels, were consistently maligned and boxed out by authorities. Mary Jane’s private Philippine lawyers observed and felt that the Philippine embassy, DFA and OUMWA officials constantly maneuvered, undermined and even belittled the value, necessity and propriety of NUPL’s pro bono legal services, assistance and representation every step of the way while patronizing and hoodwinking Mary Jane and her family in this regard.
On the legal front, meanwhile, several observations may provide key insights into how cases of OFWs on death row should be handled in the future. Flor’s and Mary Jane’s cases, for one, both involve the violation of their right to due process, particularly the lack of competent translators during their trials.
To cite, during the course of Flor’s trial, she was asked what she meant by “voluntary,” and she said that it means she can never take back what she has already said. During Mary Jane’s trial, she was reportedly asked whether she regretted committing the offense for which she was charged. Because the translator assigned to her was not competent enough to translate legal language from Bahasa to English, much less Filipino, she reportedly unwittingly answered “no.”
Meanwhile, both cases, which involved a divided public over a highly emotive punishment as death, also depended on the testimonies of witnesses who surface usually only after trial and conviction because of belated government action. In the case of Flor, the new witness presented to overturn her conviction was Virginia Parumog who testified that Flor was tortured in order to cough up a confession.
Both cases demonstrated in the concrete the meaning and practice of people’s lawyering, with mass organizations and the clients themselves involved in the process not only of legal tacticizing and popular and broad campaigns but the mutual understanding of the reasons and roots for this social malaise.
Most importantly, both cases highlighted the importance of launching mass campaigns along with the legal campaign to save a migrant worker in distress. The protests, appeals and vigils held both in Flor’s case and Mary Jane’s case ensured that the ensuing public discourse would be elevated to a critique of the very system that has pushed millions of Filipinos to look for greener pastures abroad, no matter the risks involved.
The power of such collective actions in the Philippines, amplified by the calls of local migrants’ rights activists in Indonesia, correctly prompted President Widodo to take a second look at the case of Mary Jane. The mass actions during the time of Flor, meanwhile, successfully demystified the “modern day hero” rhetoric of the government and revealed the ugly face of its labor-export policy, which turned people into commodities to be traded abroad and then abandoned when in distress.
Atty. Capulong, our esteemed human rights lawyer and mentor and pioneering proponent of people’s lawyering in the Philippines, in a speech delivered during the tribute to Flor on March 25, 1995, listed three reasons why Flor’s case drew widespread sympathy from the public, namely:
- Flor was long detained in an oppressive police state;
- Flor was seen as a victim of the lack of opportunities in the country and government’s neglect and lack of compassion; and
- Flor stood out as a poor uneducated domestic helper framed by an influential family in a repressive state.
On the other hand, Atty. Capulong in a letter sent to the Gancayco Commission on April 17, 1995, listed several reasons why Flor’s case led to the unfortunate conclusion that is her execution:
- The long period of neglect by the Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations of Flor’s case which spanned four years;
- The efforts to stay Flor’s execution came too late, compounded by government’s attitude of lending greater weight to Singapore’s position, effectively conceding Flor’s guilt;
- Singapore’s policy against setting a “bad precedent” in staying the execution of a foreigner due to political pressure and its refusal to expose its judicial, police, and penal system to outside influence and scrutiny; and
- The unenthusiastic and almost ritualistic actions taken by the Ramos administration and government lawyers to save Flor.
In turn, twenty long years ago, Atty. Capulong recommended the following courses in the aftermath of Flor’s execution:
- Evaluate all cases of detained OFWs especially those meted the death penalty and assess whether they were accorded their right to due process;
- Research and collate details and documents pertaining to OFWs facing charges or detained and give them proper attention, including providing trustworthy and competent lawyers, financial assistance, evidence gathering, and coordination with their families;
- Call on lawyers through the Integrated Bar of the Philippine to offer legal services to OFWs facing charges;
- Appeal to all relatives of OFWs who are facing charges or other legal problems to come forward and inform authorities of their plight;
- Appeal to the public to emulate the courage and fortitude of Virginia Parumog and other witnesses to come forward and help in Flor’s case; and
- Challenge the Philippine government to identify and decisively and comprehensively resolve the roots of the economic crisis and poverty in the country that cause the diaspora of many Filipinos forced to seek employment abroad.
And may we add, twenty years after Flor:
- The inventory, monitoring, and updating of cases of OFWs facing charges abroad;
- The active collaboration by Philippine private lawyers of OFWs in distress and government lawyers with retained foreign lawyers;
- The disclosure by the government of all information pertaining to distressed OFWs to their families as well as to the public;
- The appointment in all Philippine embassies and consulates of full time professional legal translators and lawyers or consultants to assist OFWs facing charges abroad;
- The close and timely coordination of relevant government agencies;
- The mandatory access to the Legal Assistance Fund to OFWs facing charges from the trial phase up to the conclusion of their cases; and
- For the Philippine government to treat OFWs as humans, exhibit compassion instead of apathy, practice public service, and avoid treating OFWs seeking legal aid as nuisances.
In 1995, Atty. Capulong had this visionary insight:
“The millions of ordinary Filipinos who registered their anger is not only borne by the utter helplessness of our poor kababayans who toil in far and distant lands. It is as much an indictment of the (Ramos) government’s lack of a truly responsive program for our migrant workers and its anti-people policies in the name of “economic diplomacy” that do not ultimately redound and have meaningful and lasting effects on the individual lives of our people.
“The grief and outrage over the injustice that befell Flor and countless others before her, and that will befall others after her, would be in vain if real changes are not instituted and effected to address the roots of the phenomenon of millions of Filipino migrant workers and others who remain poor, oppressed and deprived. ”
Indeed, today, Mary Jane’s struggle – as in many others’ – persists as she continues to languish in jail on death row. The public clamor to demand accountability and action from the Philippine government should continue to intensify along with the legal interventions aimed at her exoneration. The momentum generated by the campaign to save Mary Jane, meanwhile, should further catapult the people’s movement to rescue other OFWs on death row abroad. The same calls should be aligned with the broader political project of decisively ending the root causes of poverty in the country in the quest towards brighter societal trajectories.
20 years after Flor, we almost had another Flor. We will not let Mary Jane be another Flor.
We will continue to move heaven and earth to bring her home to her mother, her father, her siblings & her two little boys.
We shall continue to help in the daunting task to have Flors and Mary Janes no more.
* (Paper delivered at the public forum “In the Shadow of the Gallows: From Flor to Mary Jane – In Defense of our Migrant Workers, 22 May 2015, UP Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines)
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