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Every Mary Jane

FINAL APPEAL. Mary Jane in court in Yogyakarta during the hearing for her judicial review request in March 2015. Photo by Bimo Satrio/EPA

FINAL APPEAL. Mary Jane in court in Yogyakarta during the hearing for her judicial review request in March 2015.

Photo by Bimo Satrio/EPA

We know this story. She was born 30 years ago in a village called Caudillo to a contractual laborer and his wife. She dropped out of high school after her first year, was married at 17, had two children, was estranged from her husband, and left for Dubai to work as a domestic helper, only to return 10 months later because “someone want to rape me.”

We know that she began looking for work overseas a year later, had gone back and forth from Manila to Nueva Ecija to meet with a placement agency. We know she was unsuccessful, until she was offered a job in Malaysia by a neighbor named Cristina. 

We know all about Maria Cristina Sergio, the woman “all the village knew,” the one who flew to Malaysia every week and came home with her luggage full of shampoo and lotion and perfume. We are told that the young mother of 2 was 25 when she left Cabanatuan, that she thought “it was a blessing” when she packed her two shirts and two pairs of pants. We know she flew to Malaysia with Cristina and was told that promised employment was no longer available. She was taken on a shopping spree instead, was given a new suitcase when her clothes didn’t fit into her backpack, and was told that a domestic position had opened in Indonesia.

The particulars of what happened in the Indonesian airport one Sunday in 2010 are now part of our collective memory – the questioning in the terminal, the request for inspection, the emptied suitcase passing through the machine, twice, thrice, the blade cutting through the lining, the discovery of the black plastic bag with the brown powder wrapped in aluminum foil.

We know how it ended. The sentence was death, and of the 9 who were meant to die at Indonesia's Execution Island in the early hours of April 29, she was third in line. 

The battle for Mary Jane

It took 5 years on death row before saving Mary Jane Veloso became a national moral imperative. The interviews went viral. The government took action. The hashtag trended. The pressure surged. Public involvement pushed political will. Join the rally, sign the petition, write the letter, spread the word, demand answers, move, pray, fax, protest, send, tweet, hurry, now, today.

Have mercy, wrote the boxer in Las Vegas. Please, said the actress in Manila. Save the young mother, said the nation. Save the poor, uneducated, innocent daughter of a weeping mother.

For Neal Cruz she was the girl with the “innocent face” that “will break your heart.” Her behavior, said Francisco Tatad, "was nothing less than a complete surrender to the “Divine Will.” She was "a victim many times over,” said Beth Angsioco, and there is “no reason to not believe this poor, unschooled, desperate mother who only wanted to do good for her sons.”

The refrain played over the airwaves and across thousands of miles. In the month before Mary Jane Veloso was sentenced to stand before a firing squad, the world listened as Filipinos rallied behind the single cause of her survival.

Progressive party Bayan Muna condemned the national government’s alleged inaction, and asked the Indonesian government for time.

“Everything,” they said, “should be done to prove her innocence first, because it would be terribly wrong to execute an innocent person."

Of saints and heroines

We know their story. She is a 43-year-old mother of 4. She is a 14-year-old teenager who claimed to be 28. The death sentence might be a noose around a neck, or a firing squad in a desert, for crimes that may or may not have been murder or double murder.

The particulars of Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan’s stories are uncertain. Both were sentenced to death for murder, Contemplacion was hanged, Balabagan was reprieved. Their lives were reenacted in cinema, and while television episodes and newspaper articles continue to revisit their stories, the stories have evolved and some facts remain in dispute.

What is true is that their stories fired the national imagination, building into massive campaigns and drawing support from the international community. In the last two decades, their names have evolved into metaphors for victimization, the extremity of their suffering illuminating the dangers of migrant work and the desperate condition of the very poor. 

To tell their stories is to tell Mary Jane's, in an arc that is beginning to prove effective. She is poor. She is female. She is humble. She was forced, by virtue of birth and education and a failure of governance, to find work far away from the safety of country and family, and was sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit.

Suppose we tell Mary Jane’s story another way.

Suppose she were brassy-haired and sharp-tongued, with fading red lipstick and chipped stiletto heels. Suppose she had abandoned her brood of children. Suppose there were rumors of whoring and thieving. Suppose she didn’t pray. 

Suppose she knew about the 2.6 kilograms of heroin in the suitcase she rolled down Indonesian immigration. Suppose it is Cristina who is the victim and whose narrative proves true. Suppose Mary Jane was willing to risk her freedom for the few thousand dollars she was promised.

Suppose, just suppose, that Mary Jane Veloso is guilty.

The guilty

In 2008, Ramon Credo, 42 and Sally Villanueva, 33 and Elizabeth Batain, 38, were sentenced to death for smuggling heroin into China. The execution date came 3 years later.

There seemed, at the time, to be a public consensus that the 3 may have been guilty of smuggling. A 2011 blog entry by veteran journalist Ellen Tordesillas described a man-on-the-street survey shot by television show TV Patrol, where interviewees were asked whether the 3  deserved execution. Eighty percent answered in the affirmative. 

Filipino diplomats were said to have described the 3 convicts as drug mules who were “recruited by transnational drug syndicates to act as couriers.” CNN quoted the unnamed diplomats as saying the couriers were promised fees ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

“There is a stark difference between the cases of Contemplacion and Balabagan vis-à-vis the drug mules in China,” wrote then law professor and University of the Philippines College of Law dean Raul Pangalangan in an Inquirer column. “For Contemplacion, accused of murder, we argued that she made her first confession without the benefit of counsel. For Sarah, a rape victim, we argued self-defense. In none of our pleas to China do we even plead the innocence of the convicted Filipinos.”

There were protests, but the campaign did not carry the same weight as the crusade to save Mary Jane, a movement that cut across age, class and political ideology. Ramon Credo, Sally Ordinario-Villanueva, and Elizabeth Batain were executed through lethal injection on March 30, 2011. 

3 Filipino drug mules executed in China,” read the Philippine Daily Inquirer headline. “3 Filipino drug couriers executed in China,” read ABS-CBN News. 

There is a double standard in place here, and it is a dangerous one. Headlines for Mary Jane's case do not refer to her as a drug mule or a smuggler. She is called by her name, or as the “Pinay on death row” or "OFW on death row." There is yet to be a local headline that reads, “Drug mule execution delayed.” 

Certainly no local headline read “Filipino murderer executed” after Flor Contemplacion was hanged. 

Let her hang

For a moment – a short moment – Filipinos stood for Mary Jane, along with Indonesian human rights groups and world leaders and an international community aware that any country with the death penalty threatens all humanity. 

On May 1, Celia Veloso, Mary Jane’s mother publicly accused the President and his government of failing to protect her daughter. 

The response was immediate. The administration defended its contributions. The left listed gaps in assistance. The Internet surged with the enraged, demanding blood over the family's ingratitude.

We should have let her die, they said. She should have been allowed to hang, they said. Her mother should hang with her, they said.

Our identity is marked by many things: peaceful revolution, free speech, gender equality, even our apparent and notorious sensitivity to disparaging jokes made on Desperate Housewives. Yet given the many and varied ways we have chosen to define ourselves as a country, this is one of the most important: this nation will not kill.

The death penalty is no longer in force in the Philippines. We have, as a nation, decided that the execution of any citizen is an act so cruel and so unusual that it can never be justified against even the most guilty. We call the premeditated killing of any man murder, regardless of whether that man is a pedophile, a mass murderer, or a political enemy. We are aware of the risk of innocent deaths and corrupted judiciaries. We know that the fear of capital punishment has never been an effective deterrent for crime. 

In the end, our opposition to capital punishment is not so much about who the criminals are, but who we are.

It took only minutes for the crusade for Mary Jane to turn into a public lynching. Mary Jane is alive, but that fact pales against the bruised dignity of a public shaken out of its imagined narrative. The heroine is a harridan. The victim is a shrew. Off with their heads.

We know this story too. 

Call in the cavalry

Even as we demand better from the government, the continuing saga of Mary Jane Veloso demonstrates just how conditional our own convictions are. We wax eloquent over the people we believe innocent, the inmates we consider victims, the narratives that appeal to our emotions, forgetting, perhaps, that the fact of being sentenced to death is a victimization in itself. Mary Jane was the perfect victim, until she wasn't. 

It should be that all that it takes for us to launch a cavalry is the prospect of a woman forced to stand before a medieval firing squad, waiting for a bullet to stop her heart. There are 92 Filipinos around the world on death row today. Some of them may be guilty, and some of them might be ungrateful, but the fact they are outside the country under laws that are not our own does not excuse us from the obligation of protest. 

We've seen what public sentiment can do. The campaign is not just to free our own people, it is to make sure capital punishment is never made into law again, and to work for an end to the death penalty elsewhere

If we continue to choose who to defend, which cases to pursue, whose families to pity, and for which deaths we need to hold the government accountable, people will die, and they will die on our watch. We may still fail, as Australia and Brazil and Ghana failed on April 29, but there may be one more dead man who will live because we tried. 

We know this story. –