As Jokowi nears end of term, Mary Jane Veloso ages in detention

Michelle Abad

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As Jokowi nears end of term, Mary Jane Veloso ages in detention

MOTHER'S APPEAL. Celia Veloso, Mary Jane Veloso's mother, participates in a picket at the Mendiola Peace Arch to hand over a letter of appeal and demand justice for the release of Mary Jane to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Indonesian President Joko Widodo on January 10, 2024.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

An OFW rights group says the Philippine government should work harder toward Mary Jane Veloso's freedom in the context of fighting human trafficking in Southeast Asia

MANILA, Philippines – On Mary Jane Veloso’s 39th birthday, the president of the country she’s been on death row for over a decade was visiting her home country.

Veloso, a Filipino who once sought work in Indonesia, has aged in detention in Yogyakarta. In her mid-20s, the new mother to small children flew to Indonesia in 2010 carrying a suitcase, given to her by her recruiters, that was discovered to have heroin in it. She was arrested and sentenced to death months later for drug smuggling.

Now in the last year of her 30s, Veloso’s sons have become taller than her.

When Indonesian President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, visited Malacañang on Wednesday, January 10, Veloso’s family was in Mendiola, a stone’s throw from the presidential palace, pleading anew for her freedom.

Iyan na po ibigay ninyong regalo sa kaniyang kaarawan ngayon – ang kaniyang kalayaan (It’s the gift you can give her on her birthday – her freedom),” said Veloso’s mother Celia in a letter to Jokowi.

As Jokowi nears end of term, Mary Jane Veloso ages in detention

With Indonesia holding national elections in February, Jokowi’s term is set to end in October. This is Jokowi’s second consecutive term; Indonesia’s constitution prevents him from running for a third.

It was Jokowi’s decision to delay Veloso’s execution in 2015 following the surrender of her recruiters to Philippine police. But with the legal proceedings against her recruiters still ongoing, and an appeal for clemency in limbo, Mary Jane faces the risk of a prolonged wait for an uncertain fate.

Case still ongoing

Veloso’s case began during the term of former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but it was Jokowi who dealt with its developments since he began his first term as president in 2014. 

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The story of Mary Jane Veloso, in her own words

The story of Mary Jane Veloso, in her own words

In 2015, the late Philippine president Benigno Aquino III broke diplomatic protocol when he spoke to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to request to turn Veloso into a state witness.

Jokowi put Veloso’s execution on hold to allow her to give testimony in a complaint filed against her recruiters in the Philippines, then-Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario had said. 

Almost nine years later, Veloso has not been able to give this testimony to a Philippine court. Through the years, the Philippine and Indonesian governments have worked out the conditions of taking her depositions against her alleged traffickers, Maria Cristina Sergio and Julius Lacanilao.

The latest update from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) as of Wednesday was that the legal interrogatories required by the Regional Trial Court handling her case had been sent to Mary Jane for her to answer. 

“President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. expressed hope that the progression of the case of Ms. Veloso will merit her clemency at the appropriate time. The Philippine government will continuously exhaust all efforts to assist Ms. Veloso and her family,” said DFA Undersecretary Maria Theresa Lazaro.

Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo in September 2022 urged the Indonesian government to grant executive clemency to Mary Jane.

But overseas Filipino workers’ rights group Migrante International said that this was “nothing new.”

“The Philippine authorities should now demonstrate a more decisive political will to lock in with their Indonesian counterparts on the specific parameters of taking her deposition as soon as possible,” said Migrante in a statement on Thursday, January 11.

“It is disheartening for the Marcos Jr. administration to still rely solely on a lengthy and laborious process that has been obstructed by legal maneuvers over time when it can already do something politically and seek immediate solution through the independent track of clemency,” the group added.

‘Pag mawala ako at wala [pa rin] si Mary Jane, paano ‘yung dalawa niyang anak (When I’m gone and Mary Jane still isn’t around, what will happen to her two sons)?” Celia said at the picket on Wednesday.

Sana palayain na po nila dahil matagal na po nagdusa ‘yung anak ko na walang kasalanan (I hope they set her free because my innocent daughter has already suffered for a long time).”

Growing up without a mother

Veloso’s eldest, Mark Daniel, is now 21 years old. He lamented not being able to focus on his studies due to the absence of his mother growing up.

Nabarkada po…. Maling daan po ‘yung pinuntahan ko. Kasi mahirap po ‘yung walang gumagabay eh (I just loitered around with friends…. I ended up on the wrong path. It’s hard to grow up without a parent guiding you),” Mark Daniel told reporters on Wednesday.

Veloso’s parents and sons were able to visit her in Indonesia twice in 2023 – in June, and for Christmas. 

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REUNITED. Mary Jane Veloso (in black) with her sons and parents during the family’s visit to Indonesia in June 2023. Photo courtesy of Migrante International

Pinipilit po niya akong mag-aral ngayon. Humabol daw po ako sa school,” said Mark Daniel. (She’s pressing me to study now. I should catch up, she said.)

Celia said the family noticed that Veloso had lost a lot of weight when they visited in December. For Mark Daniel, it signaled to him that his mother was losing hope, especially as some of her friends in detention had already gained their freedom.

Masakit po na makita siyang ganoon. Pero palagi po niyang sinasabi sa ‘kin dasal lang po, tapos marami tumutulong sa kaniya. Makakauwi po siya. Palagi po niyang sinasabi ‘yun. Tumawag lang tayo sa taas, matutulungan po tayo,” he said.

(It pains me to see her like that. But she always tells me to keep praying and remember that many people are helping her. She will come home. She always says that. Just pray and we will get help.)

Counting Jokowi’s days

Bilateral talks on energy and security were the highlights of Jokowi’s three-day visit. Migrante expressed disappointment in what they saw was a lacking effort to progress Veloso’s case and also stressed the need for the Philippine government to solve the case in the larger context of addressing human trafficking in Southeast Asia. 

“President Marcos should give importance to Mary Jane’s case for the victims of human trafficking, in the context of the need to fight and stop human traffickers and illegal recruiters, and protect victims. They should discuss Mary Jane’s case in the context of fighting human trafficking in the Southeast Asian region,” Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion said in Filipino.

In April 2023, Jokowi granted clemency to Merri Utami, another migrant worker who was sentenced to death for drug smuggling. After being on death row for over 20 years, Utami’s sentence was lowered to life imprisonment. Utami said she was tricked by her boyfriend to bring drugs into the country, according to a Jakarta Post story.

Advocates hope the same can be done before Jokowi leaves office.

“We don’t know who will take Jokowi’s place. How will they deal with Mary Jane’s case, given that Indonesia remains strict about its laws on drug smuggling? That’s why it’s urgent for our President to keep pushing for the humanitarian appeal for clemency,” said Concepcion. –

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.