Not all cases of OFWs on death row are equal

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

As predictable as rain, and as tedious, is the usual response of Philippine newspaper columnists and editorial writers whenever Filipinos end up on death row in foreign prisons for various alleged offenses, including drug trafficking.

They will ask the government to educate overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) on the perils of serving as drug couriers, or “mules.” This suggests that those OFWs who have been convicted of drug trafficking knew what they were doing, but thought they could get away with it, or were ignorant of the host country’s laws.

In some cases they squarely lay the blame on the OFW, or imply that he or she deserves execution for breaking the laws of the country whose courts have sentenced him or her to death. Seldom do they take the time and effort to look at the specifics of each case.

True, one or all of these assumptions are valid in many cases of OFW convictions for drug trafficking. The excuse that they did not know the contents of the package containing the drug often strains credulity for its disingenuousness.

In other instances, the alleged drug mules were not familiar with the laws of the country into which they were bringing the package, or else thought that they would not be detected, perhaps because they think the same impunity rampant in the Philippines reigns as well in other countries.

The prospect of easy money is usually the reason some OFWs agree to bring prohibited drugs into another country. In not a few cases, it’s not the first time that the OFW has served as a drug courier.

The case of Mary Jane Veloso is entirely different, but has elicited practically the same response from the Philippine media, which have implied that she knew what she was doing, but did not know that the death penalty has been restored in the new administration of Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo — and that, in any case, appeals for either a stay or a stop to her execution gloss over these essential points, as well as the fundamental one of the need for OFWs to respect the laws of the countries to which they have been deployed or through which they’re transiting.

Veloso was in the first place not entrusted with any package, but was given a “gift” — by a quasi-relative who was also her recruiter — of a suitcase the lining of which, it turned out, concealed 2.6 kilograms of heroin. While it seems only common sense to those of us who are more skeptical of human motives and acts never to carry for anyone, whether for love or money, any package, bag or suitcase the contents of which we don’t know, Veloso apparently trusted this individual, whom her family has identified as a certain Christine, or “Tintin,” and who was known to her as the wife of the son of her godfather.

In feudal Philippines, ties of kinship bind not only blood relatives but also those individuals with whom one has developed such relationships as Veloso had with “Tintin.” Not only are godfathers (ninong) and godmothers (ninang) treated as members of the family, so are their children (Filipinos even have a name for them: kinakapatid) — and their children’s spouses. To Veloso’s implicit trust of “Tintin” was apparently added her sense that she owed her a debt of gratitude (utang na loob). Her lawyers from the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) have pointed out how excessive the death sentence on Veloso is, given these issues.

If there are reasons to doubt that Veloso knew she was carrying illegal drugs into Indonesia, there are equally sound reasons to doubt that her trial was fair. The NUPL argues that “she was denied her basic right to due process; the death penalty is too harsh given her disputable participation in the crime; and humanitarian considerations militate against the taking of her life through execution by firing squad.” (Yes, they still do that in Indonesia.)

Veloso, continued NUPL Secretary-General Edre Olalia, was not represented by a competent lawyer during her 2010 trial, and the interpreter she was provided with was a student whose own competence in either Bahasa Indonesia or English could be questioned. (Veloso did not then know Bahasa Indonesia; neither was she fluent in English.)

Olalia also questioned the court’s failure to apply in Veloso’s case the Indonesian Law on the Eradication of the Criminal Act on Trafficking in Persons, which, he said, contains a “non-punishment” clause for criminal acts committed by trafficked persons. (Philippine anti-human trafficking groups point out that Veloso, by being exploited as an unwitting drug courier, was a victim of human trafficking.) Olalia has also asked the Indonesian government for leniency on humanitarian grounds. Veloso, who is from a poor family, is a young single mother with two small children.

Incidental to the Veloso case, but crucial to Veloso’s fate nevertheless, is the political situation in Indonesia, where President Widodo is apparently using his mindless advocacy of the death penalty for drug-related crimes as a platform from which to enhance his domestic political support. It helps explain why he’s made much of his supposedly uncompromising stand on drug trafficking by refusing to heed appeals for a stay of execution not only from the Philippine government and various local groups, but also from such international bodies as the United Nations and Amnesty International.

But Filipinos have to ask why the Philippine embassy in Jakarta did not provide Veloso a competent lawyer and interpreter to begin with, rather than allowing her to be represented by a lawyer designated by the Indonesian government and to have a less than able interpreter. Apparently, as in many other instances involving Filipinos in trouble with the laws of other countries, Philippine embassies are hardly of any help, even if only by seeing to it that the rights of Filipinos accused of crimes in foreign places are protected.

One would have expected the Philippine foreign service — after years and years of seeing OFWs hanged, decapitated or killed through some other method across the planet — to have developed by now those mechanisms of support that can make the difference between life and death. Too little and too late are the (self-) publicized efforts of the Aquino administration to save Veloso five long years after she was convicted.

The question of State accountability aside, the flaws in Veloso’s trial alone should be enough grounds for a mistrial. Together with the other unique circumstances surrounding her case, that glaring possibility suggests that hers deserves closer scrutiny on the part of both the public, and, what’s even more crucial, the Philippine media. Surely among the “lessons from a drug case” rather than the usual clichés is the need for the media to look closely at every case of OFWs landing on death row, rather than lumping them all together as if they were the same. They’re not.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
April 23, 2015

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