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 for 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 put to death by firing squad shortly after midnight.
“Miracles do come true,” her mother Celia told Manila radio by phone from Indonesia.
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.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s government said it had persuaded Indonesia it had new information that would hopefully prove Veloso was an unwitting mule — and would nail the drug gang which used her as a drug courier.
“As a nation, we are celebrating the fact that Mary Jane is alive,” cabinet secretary Rene Almendras told reporters.
Outside the Indonesian embassy, supporters who had been keeping vigil shed tears of joy early Wednesday, hugged each other and raised clenched fists in the air.
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.
Filipino Catholic priest Harold Toledano, who had been counselling the family, said Veloso, who insists she is no drug mule, never lost hope.
“It’s like a resurrection for us. She is alive. It is like an experience of knowing someone has died and then, just risen,” he told AFP in Cilacap in Indonesia, where Veloso’s family kept vigil.
The town is the gateway to Nusakambangan prison island, where the executions took place.
Veloso maintains that 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 temporary 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.
Cabinet secretary Almendras recalled the frantic phone exchanges between Filipino and Indonesian officials hours before the planned execution, which saw Aquino break protocol when he phoned Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.
“The initiative, that time, became a minute-to-minute game,” he said.
Veloso’s death sentence however remains in force.
“Now we need to act and prove the case that we have presented, that she was a victim,” Almendras said, adding Manila had found “some witnesses to the illegal recruitment” of Veloso.
Foreign Secretary (minister) Albert del Rosario said the government would “pursue full investigation of those accountable for the victimisation of Mary Jane”.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told reporters she was seeking a meeting with Indonesian officials on helping them pursue Veloso’s recruiters.
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.
Her family says she was forced to return home after her employer tried to rape her.
She was later recruited to work as a maid in Indonesia by Filipina Cristina Sergio, whom the family accused of working with a drug gang to hide heroin in Veloso’s suitcase.
Sergio, 47, sought protection at a police station in Cabanatuan, claiming she had been receiving death threats due to the Veloso family’s allegations, said provincial police chief Superintendent Rey de la Cruz.
She 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.