“In the case of Flor Contemplacion, we only had eight days from the time we knew about the case. In the case of Mary Jane, we had three weeks.”
By KATHRINA MANUEL
MANILA — People’s lawyers, migrants’ rights advocates and other activists highlighted the struggles of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) as they recalled the cases of two Filipinas who faced execution abroad, 20 years apart: Flor Contemplacion and Mary Jane Veloso.
“We will not let Mary Jane become another Flor,” said lawyer Edre Olalia at the forum “In the shadow of the gallows,” organized by the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers and Migrante International on May 22, at the University of the Philippines, Diliman.
Flor Contemplacion, a mother of five, was hanged in Singapore on March 17, 1995, falsely convicted of killing her fellow domestic helper (DH) Delia Maga and her three-year-old Singaporean ward Nicholas Huang. Her case pushed the enactment of the Magna Carta for OFWs, as government pledged that Flor would be the first and last Filipina to be executed outside the country.
Twenty years after Flor’s execution, Mary Jane Veloso, a single mother of two boys, was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death by firing squad in Indonesia. Her execution was temporarily stayed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
“It was a sentimental journey,” said Olalia, the Veloso family’s lead private counsel who was also one of Flor’s pro bono lawyers in 1995.
More than the sentiments, Olalia said, it is the “principled and professional responsibility” of peoples’ lawyers to give “competent and trustworthy legal representation” to somebody like Mary Jane.
Olalia summed up the differences and similarities of the two cases.
In Flor’s case, the trial lasted for two years while Mary Jane’s lasted only for six months. Lawyers had access to the 10-volume records during Flor’s case unlike in Mary Jane’s, where trial records were “strangely confidential,” Olalia said.
In both cases, migrants’ rights activists said, the Philippine government neglected to give proper assistance, which landed them on death row.
Mary Jane was convicted of drug trafficking, which is a cross-border crime, or a crime that violates the laws of more than one country. Flor was convicted of double murder, which is not a cross-border crime.
In Flor’s case, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Solicitor General sent the late Romeo Capulong, Olalia and other human rights lawyers for the last minute efforts to save her. In Mary Jane’s case, Olalia said, the Aquino administration did not even acknowledge the letter sent by NUPL lawyers, as they took on Mary Jane’s case.
Olalia said the “due process arguments” were used in both cases: the involuntary confession under duress for Flor, and the lack of competent translator for Mary Jane.
Flor, who was tortured, falsely admitted the murders, while Mary Jane consistently denied the allegations against her.
Flor had factual argument primarily, while for Mary Jane, there was a pivotal, legal argument which was human trafficking, with Cristina Sergio as her illegal recruiter.
Olalia said there were newly-discovered evidences in both cases: it was the absence of Flor’s fingerprints in the crime scene, while it was the element of human trafficking for Mary Jane.
In Flor’s case, there was scientific evidence to dispute the murder charges since her finger prints were not found anywhere in the crime scene. There was also lack of clear and credible motive for her to kill a Singaporean child and her fellow Filipina.
“There was also a strange mathematical precision showing badges of fabrication of evidence and testimonies against Flor,” Olalia said.
In Mary Jane’s case, there was no DNA test, and no contamination or planting of evidence against her.
The new evidence for Flor, however, did not lead to a retrial, while for Mary Jane, it resulted in a temporary reprieve.
Olalia said in the case of Flor, Singapore was a police state during the time of President Ong Teng Cheong, while Indonesian Pres. Joko Widodo listened to appeals for Mary Jane up to the last minute.
Flor had a singular execution, unlike Mary Jane, who was scheduled for execution with eight others.
Race vs time
The two cases both reached public attention late. Flor was detained on May 4, 1991 and her case gained media attention on March 11, 1995. Mary Jane was detained on April 25, 2010. Migrante reached her family on March 30 this year, and NUPL subsequently took on the case after a week, on April 7.
“In the case of Flor, we only had eight days from the time we knew about the case. In the case of Mary Jane, we had three weeks,” Olalia said.
In both cases, “the language was crucial… and the Philippine administrations became defensive,” Olalia said.
There was no social media yet during Flor’s time, unlike now, when it played a big role in gathering support for Mary Jane. Still, Olalia said, Flor’s case created “a bigger, more widespread and more spontaneous showing of support nationwide.”
Church groups supported both Flor and Mary Jane, and believed that both were innocent.
Migrante, the group that became known for campaigning to save Flor in 1995, said it will now sustain the campaign for Mary Jane.
Mic Catuira, Migrante deputy secretary general, said they would strengthen the legal case against Cristina Sergio, keep up protests, gather support from local and international groups and the church.
Imprisoned OFWs around the globe
Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, who is also the NUPL president, said there are 7,000 to 8,000 Filipinos in prison in other countries, and 88 of them are on death row as convicted drug mules.
He mentioned Florymay Talaban, 65, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Thailand because of drug trafficking. Like Mary Jane, Talaban was not aware of what she carried in her bag.
“What we did in her case was we asked for pardon from the King of Thailand because she was already convicted,” Colmenares said. He added that Talaban, however, appealed to the Supreme Court, which nullified their appeal for pardon from the Thai king.
Colmenares said the NUPL is committed to defend, protect, and promote human rights, especially of the poor and the oppressed, like Flor and Mary Jane.
The NUPL, however, faces challenges in carrying out this task.
“Since it is a volunteer organization, there is lack of lawyers,” said Colmenares. He added that they also lack funds. Meanwhile, the cases will never run out, he said, because the problem is “systemic.”
Colmenares said the government’s labor export policy itself is the problem, as it sends Filipinos for employment outside the country, instead of creating jobs at home.