Philippines hails 'miracle' reprieve for death row Filipina

Philippines hails 'miracle' reprieve for death row Filipina
In this file photo taken on April 21, 2015, Filipina drug convict and death row prisoner Mary Jane Veloso, clad in traditional Indonesian attire, gestures during a programme celebrating Indonesian national hero and women's rights activist Raden Kartini at Yogyakarta prison.

MANILA - The last-minute reprieve for a Filipina drug convict facing execution in Indonesia sparked an outpouring of euphoria and disbelief on Wednesday, with crowds weeping with joy and her children crying "Mama will live!"

Mary Jane Veloso's family said their prayers had been answered after it emerged the single mother, 30, was not among a group of foreign drug convicts who faced the firing squad shortly after midnight.

"Miracles do come true," Veloso's mother, Celia, told Manila radio by phone from Indonesia.

In Manila, supporters who had been keeping vigil outside the Indonesian embassy shed tears of joy, hugged each other and raised clenched fists in the air.

Veloso's sons, aged six and 12, in Indonesia to say goodbye to their mother, yelled: "Yes, yes! Mama will live!" according to their grandmother.

The Philippines is a deeply Catholic country and Filipino priest Harold Toledano, who had been counselling the Veloso family, said she never lost hope she would be spared.

"It's like a resurrection for us. She is alive. It is like an experience of knowing someone has died and then, just risen," Toledano told AFP in Cilacap, where Veloso's family kept vigil.

In Veloso's hometown of Cabanatuan city, two hours drive north of Manila, relatives heaved a sigh of relief.

"This is nothing short of a miracle. We are overjoyed. Praise God," Veloso's aunt, Imelda Magday, told local television.

"I felt this surge of energy when I heard the news. I thank the Lord. Mary Jane, don't worry, we will see each other soon," Veloso's grandmother, Milagros Fiesta, said in a separate television interview.

Veloso has always maintained an international human trafficking and drug gang tricked her into bringing 2.6 kilograms (5.7 pounds) of heroin to Indonesia from Malaysia five years ago.

She won an 11th-hour stay of execution after the person suspected of asking her to carry the drugs unexpectedly turned herself in to authorities in the Philippines on Tuesday.

The reprieve caught the Philippine press by surprise, with papers running front-page headlines bidding Veloso farewell and accusing the government of failing to save her.

Her death sentence however remains, with the Indonesian attorney-general putting the onus on the Philippine government to prove she was a mere human trafficking victim.

'The victimisation of Mary Jane'

Veloso has become something of an iconic figure for many - representative of the hardships suffered by the 10 million ordinary Filipinos, or a tenth of the population, who work abroad to escape poverty and scant job opportunities back home.

Born to trash-collector parents, she dropped out of high school and married in her teens before going to work as a maid in Dubai in 2009, but was forced to return home after her employer tried to rape her, according to her family.

She was later recruited to work as a maid in Indonesia by Filipina Cristina Sergio, whom the family accused of conniving with an international drug ring to hide heroin in her suitcase.

Sergio, 47, sought protection as she walked into a police station in Cabanatuan, claiming she had been receiving death threats due to the Veloso family's allegations, provincial police chief Superintendent Rey de la Cruz said.

Sergio had no previous criminal record and was not under arrest, he told AFP.

Organised crime investigators have filed human trafficking and fraud complaints against Sergio and the justice department is expected to decide soon whether charges will be filed in court.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the government would "pursue full investigation of those accountable for the victimisation of Mary Jane".

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima was planning to fly to Indonesia to discuss with the attorney general how the Philippines would prosecute Sergio, Cabinet Secretary Jose Almendras told reporters.

"We need to act and prove the case that we have, that she (Veloso) is a victim," Almendras added.

Drug ring leaders are the "bigger problem", not an unwitting "courier" like Veloso, he said.

Almendras recalled the frantic phone exchanges between Filipino and Indonesian officials hours before the planned execution, which saw President Benigno Aquino break protocol when he phoned Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

"The initiative, that time, became a minute-to-minute game," he said.

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