Overseas Filipinos and the death penalty: Cases that made headlines

Don Kevin Hapal
Overseas Filipinos and the death penalty: Cases that made headlines
This is not the first time the country has mourned the execution of a fellow Filipino abroad

MANILA, Philippines – On January 25, 2017, the country was shocked to hear that overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Jakatia Pawa, who claimed innocence in the murder of her Kuwaiti employer’s 22-year-old daughter, was set to be executed within the day. The family was also informed by Jakartia herself on the day of the execution.

Last-minute protests, prayers, and appeals were made for the Filipina to be saved but to no avail. Come 3:19pm, Philippine time, she was announced dead.

This is not the first time the country mourned over the execution of a fellow Filipino abroad, or feared for the fate of someone on death row. 

Here are some of the most well-known cases of Filipinos being executed abroad:

Flor Contemplacion 

Flor Contemplacion’s execution remains one of the most notorious OFW death penalty cases in Philippine history – having been widely publicized in various literary works here and abroad. Contemplacion was meted the death penalty in 1995 for the murder of her 4-year-old ward Nicholas Huang and fellow Filipino worker Delia Maga. She initially confessed to the crime but backtracked later on, saying she confessed under duress. 

Two OFWs also came forward as witnesses, claiming that Huang drowned during an epileptic fit and that his father killed Maga in rage. The court, however, ruled their claims were fabrications.

Singapore refused to heed Manila’s request to stay the execution of the mother of 4, triggering national outrage against the city-state. The execution triggered widespread condemnation from Filipinos and protests were held all over the country. President Rodrigo Duterte, who was Mayor of Davao City at the time, burned a flag of Singapore in one of the protests. 

The Philippine government was also criticized for inaction. Critics say that while Contemplacion was sentenced in 1993, the government only poured in support during her last few months when the case got the public’s attention. Then President Fidel Ramos wrote a letter to Singapore’s then-President Ong Teng Cheong asking for clemency on Contemplacion. His request was not granted.

Bilateral relations between the Philippines and Singapore were put to a test. Her execution in the city-state prompted the Philippines to downgrade its diplomatic ties. 

Relationship between the two countries were normalized a few months later, after Singapore agreed to a third-party investigation which sustained its decision on the case. 

Mary Jane Veloso 

Mary Jane Veloso, a Nueva Ecija native, was detained in Indonesia on April 25, 2010, for smuggling drugs, a crime punishable by death in a country known for having some of the toughest anti-drug laws in the world.

She claimed that her recruiter and godsister, Maria Kristina Sergio, had duped her into flying to Indonesia and with a suitcase bearing 2.6 kilograms of heroin hidden in the lining. Veloso has consistently maintained her innocence.

From 2011 to 2015, the Philippine government led by President Aquino appealed for clemency from then Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his successor, Joko Widodo. Both of them continuously denied all requests.

By 2015, there was a growing public outcry to save Veloso. Migrante International kicked off an online movement, #SaveMaryJane, in March or more than month before her scheduled execution. Other groups started joining the campaign, including Rappler’s civic engagement arm, MovePH.

The online petition on Change.org was pushed to the top 10 of the most signed petitions globally.

On Tuesday, April 28, Aquino sent a fourth letter of appeal to President Widodo.

By Wednesday, the day of Mary Jane’s execution, all hope seemed lost.

But at the 11th hour, the whole country rejoiced when the Indonesian government gave Mary Jane a reprieve. 

On August 2016, Veloso appealed to President Duterte for help in “getting justice.” 

“I’ve been suffering for so long here in Indonesia, suffering even though I am innocent. You are my only hope,” she said in an audio recording.

Duterte said that he would plead for Veloso’s life when he met Jokowi on his working visit to Indonesia. But he later on admitted that he felt awkward about “begging” Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to spare Mary Jane Veloso’s life because of the Philippine leader’s hardline stance against illegal drugs.

Come 2017, Veloso is still awaiting a verdict in Indonesia. 

Joselito Zapanta 

Joselito Zapanta, a 35-year-old Filipino was executed in Saudi Arabia on December 29, 2015 because of a case of murder with robbery.

The father of two was convicted for murder with robbery of his Sudanese landlord on April 13, 2010 by the Riyadh Grand Court and was sentenced to death after the family of the victim refused to execute an affidavit of forgiveness (tanazul) in exchange for blood money.

The family of the victim demanded a payment of P55 million, or 5 million in Saudi riyal, so that Zapanta could be spared from death penalty. However, the government was only able to raise about P23 million, failing to save Zapanta from death row.

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay, also the former presidential adviser on OFW concerns, said the Philippine government had no shortcomings in its efforts to save Zapanta’s life. Binay said several private individuals, the local government of Pampanga, and non-governmental organizations also tried to help.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) previously said the Philippine government was not inclined to shoulder the full cost because of a cap in spending for blood money.

A question was raised after the failed attempt to save Zapanta: what to do with blood money. Senator Cynthia Villar filed a resolution to determine the status of the P23-million blood money that the government raised for Zapanta.

OFW advocate Susan Ople urged the government to donate a percentage of the blood money to go towards his family and other OFWs on death row.

It was later on clarified by the inquiry led by Senator Villar that Zapanta’s family may be given the blood money raised for him, but only with approval from the donors.

2011 China Drug Mules 

A total of four Filipinos were executed by lethal injection in China in 2011, all after being convicted for drug trafficking, raising concerns on growing numbers of Filipinos being used as drug mules. 

On March 30, 2011, convicted drug mules Sally Ordinario-Villanueva and Ramon Credo were executed in Xiamen. On the same day, Elizabeth Batain was executed in Shenzhen.

Their executions were originally scheduled earlier that year but were put on hold after Binay’s humanitarian visit to Beijing.

The 3 were arrested separately in 2008 for smuggling at least four kilos of heroin. China has strict anti-drug rules and smuggling more than 50 grams of heroin or other drugs is punishable by death.

Another Filipino was executed on December 8, 2011. The unnamed man from Bataan province was caught trying to smuggle 1.5 kilos of heroin and was executed by lethal injection in Liuzhou City. 

The executions spread ripples of fear across the country and prompted the DFA to launch an intensified campaign against international drug syndicates duping Filipinos, often from poor families, into smuggling drugs abroad. – Rappler.com

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Don Kevin Hapal

Don Kevin Hapal is Rappler’s Head of Data and Innovation. He started at Rappler as a digital communications specialist, then went on to lead Rappler’s Balikbayan section for overseas Filipinos. He was introduced to data journalism while writing and researching about social media, disinformation, and propaganda.