Migrante International says the lack of legal assistance by government deprives OFWs due process and lands them straight to jail, in some cases, in death row.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – “What pattern?”
In a heated exchange during an April 7 protest, a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) official asked Migrante International chairperson Garry Martinez what “pattern” activists were referring to about their service to overseas Filipino workers.
Martinez, who knows the struggle of OFWs like the back of his hand, retaliated by pointing out one case after the other, from those who were languishing in various jails, sentenced to die and those who were executed under the Aquino government.
If there is a “pattern,” he added, it is the fact that “government help is always too little and too late.”
Today, migrant rights advocates are running against time to help the Veloso family save their loved one from execution in Indonesia.
Mary Jane Veloso, a victim of human trafficking, was arrested in Indonesia in 2010 for reportedly carrying 2.6 kilograms of heroin, stitched to the luggage lent to her by her traffickers. Six months later, the Indonesian court sentenced her to die. Her case has been kept from public scrutiny until recently.
Migrante International said that more than being a victim of drug syndicates, Veloso is a victim of the government neglect.
On April 10, the Veloso family, along with migrant rights advocates held a protest action in Mendiola.
Insufficient legal assistance
At the April 8 protest action in front of the DFA, Francisco Noel Fernandez III, special assistant under the DFA’s Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Welfare Affairs (OUMWA) claimed that there was a lawyer all through out the stages of Veloso’s trial. But he also admitted that the interpreter was not duly accredited.
Migrante International, in a statement, said the court-provided interpreter was accredited by the Association of Indonesian Translators. The said lawyer, on the other hand, was a public defender provided to Veloso by the Indonesian police.
Veloso was only provided with a DFA-appointed lawyer when her case was already up for final judicial review, according to her family’s account.
The group said this resulted to her conviction, though the trial was very short, concluded six months after she was arrested.
“Whenever a Filipino is arrested, the most crucial is the first hour. No matter how seemingly ‘light’ an offense is, it would be aggravated,” Martinez told Bulatlat.com.
The migrant rights group also lamented the decreasing funds allocated for legal assistance for overseas Filipinos in crisis.
There are also least 52 million unused funds that should have been used in providing legal assistance to OFWs. When asked on why there are unused funds, the DFA responded by citing the Migrant Workers Act, which stipulated a “ceiling” to the amount of assistance that may be provided per Filipino.
Such is unacceptable, Martinez said, adding that it is “deplorable” and “extremely irrational” as there are at least 7,000 Filipinos behind bars in Middle Eastern countries alone.
The lack of legal assistance, he pointed out, deprives OFWs due process and lands them straight to jail. Martinez said the same situation is true for all seven Filipinos executed under Aquino – the biggest number under one administration.
The Aquino government submitted its appeal for executive clemency in 2011, more than a year after Veloso was sentenced to die.
But Migrante International described such efforts as mere “passive and perfunctory, with no further attempts of such after the moratorium against executions was lifted by then newly-elected Indonesian president Joko Widodo.”
In fact, Aquino had the opportunity to talk to Widodo about Veloso during his state visit in Manila last Feb. 9, said Martinez.
“Aquino had all the opportunity to state Mary Jane’s case, or even at least give Mary Jane’s family a chance to personally air their appeal. It should have been an opportunity to stress that diplomatic relations will be strained should Indonesia decide to push through with Mary Jane’s execution. But obviously nothing even close to that took place,” he added.
The Veloso family has also been kept in the dark. Not once, the migrants group said, did the DFA provide regular updates to the family.
“They really neglected the case. They did not fulfill their promise that we would be updated of her case. In reality, I was the one calling them and they never pick up the phone. When they do, they would tell us that Ma’am Patricia was either abroad or having a vacation,” Maritess Veloso-Laurente, sister of Veloso, said in a previous Bulatlat.com report.
Laurente was referring to Patricia Jean Macam, a DFA case officer formerly assigned to Veloso.
She added that it was, in fact, Veloso, herself, who informed the family that she was sentenced to die.
Tired of getting no updates from the DFA, the family opted to save the cost of transportation they would incur from traveling to Cabanatuan City to Manila to send it to Veloso instead.
Migrante International also assailed the government on why Veloso’s godsister and recruiter Maria Kristina Sergio remains scot-free.
“We cannot fathom why, up to this day, authorities have dilly-dallied in arresting and prosecuting Sergio despite Mary Jane’s own testimony and the family’s accounts,” Martinez said, adding that Veloso is a victim and should not be executed.
In a separate statement, Migrante International said Sergio left their house in Talavera, Nueva Ecija when Veloso’s case was reported by the media this March. The Veloso family recently received reports that Sergio has already returned to their hometown.
Celia, Veloso’s mother, said they could not understand why Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency cannot arrest Sergio. She told Bulatlat.com that Sergio even had the guts to bully them during the first few months since Veloso’s arrest, warning them not to go to the media or else they would be killed.
“I was not scared. But my husband feared for my grandchildren. So we kept mum on the issue,” Celia said in an interview.
Martinez said the first thing this government should have done is to conduct its own investigation. With such inaction, he added, “the government is giving us reason to believe that Sergio has strong connections inside the government.”
Rights lawyer to take up case
Meanwhile, the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said they are exploring all possible venues in their bid to save Veloso’s life.
“A lot of legal spade work has to be chased, many doors have to be knocked on, and whirlwind pulling together here and across the seas to be done. It is daunting as we rage agains the dying of the light,” Edre Olalia, secretary general of NUPL, said.
Olalia, who will head the Veloso family’s private lawyers, was among those who went to Singapore 20 years ago, along with the late human rights lawyer Romeo Capulong, in last-ditch efforts to save Flor Contemplacion from execution.
“The struggle to change the course of history repeating itself on the literally exploited and the oppressed has, in the case of migrant worker Mary Jane Veloso, become a matter of life and death,” he said in a statement.