Deal to target drug network, not the mule, saved Filipina's life

Deal to target drug network, not the mule, saved Filipina's life

MANILA/JAKARTA - As the clocked ticked on Tuesday towards midnight, the hour when nine drug traffickers were expected to be executed on a high-security prison island in Indonesia, mandarins in the Philippines waited nervously for some word from Jakarta.

There never was a response to a last-ditch appeal their government had made to spare Filipina Mary Jane Veloso. But when news came that only eight of the convicts had in the end gone before the firing squad, there was jubilation in Manila.

"We did it!" read a text message sent by a colleague to Philippines Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, who explained on Wednesday that the Southeast Asian neighbours had effectively agreed to target a drug network rather than one of its small-time mules like Veloso, a housemaid and mother of two.

"I think both sides ... have decided let's pursue this legal angle of not just hitting a mere courier and trying to go to the bigger root of the problem," he told reporters in Manila, explaining the unexpected reprieve for the Filipina.

Veloso's lawyers describe her five-year journey - from arrest at an Indonesian airport with 2.6 kg of heroin hidden in the lining of a suitcase to a close encounter with the death penalty - as one of misunderstandings and legal missteps.

When the court's sentence against her was read out in Indonesian and then translated into English, Veloso did not grasp its meaning: Only later, when a pastor explained, did the Filipina maid understand that she had been sentenced to death. "She didn't understand anything that was happening," said Ismail Mohammed, one of her lawyers, recalling the 2010 trial in Yogyakarta, the Javanese city where months earlier the 30-year-old had arrived with the offending suitcase.

HEROIN HIDDEN IN SUITCASE

Veloso maintained her innocence throughout, insisting that she had been an unwitting drug mule for a Filipina employment recruiter who had promised Veloso a job and then presented her with $500, some new clothes and the black suitcase.

The alleged recruiter, Maria Cristina Sergio, denies any wrongdoing. She says she has no knowledge of the suitcase in question, or the drugs.

Veloso worked as a domestic helper in Dubai for nearly a year, but left to escape an abusive employer, said Erde Olalia, a member of her volunteer legal team.

She returned to the Philippines unemployed. There, a recruiter told her about a work opportunity in Malaysia, but when Veloso flew there she found there was no job to walk into.

According to an official record of the court ruling seen by Reuters, the recruiter asked Veloso - while she was waiting for the job in Malaysia to materialise - to fly to Yogyakarta to hand over a suitcase to a man called "Jhon". She bought her a round-trip ticket and said she would pay for her accommodation.

And so, on April 25, 2010, Veloso landed at Yogyakarta airport, where authorities discovered packages of heroin wrapped in foil hidden inside her luggage.

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