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Nine people sit on their knees in a circle. Their eyes are closed and their heads tilt towards the ground. They are putting their arms in front of them and facing their hands towards the sky.

Mary Jane’s family gather in a prayer circle, 6 hours before her scheduled execution in 2015. Photo courtesy of Komnas Perempuan.

Mary Jane Veloso: A Geopolitical Pawn in Southeast Asia’s War on Drugs

Mary Jane Veloso is a 36-year-old Filipina woman incarcerated on death row in Indonesia for drug trafficking. As an indigent foreign national, Mary Jane was subjected to shocking fair trial violations, notably inept defense counsel and a translator who was unable to translate proceedings into a language that Mary Jane knew. Mary Jane was convicted of illegally importing heroin into Indonesia, but she maintains that she was targeted by drug traffickers and had no knowledge of her role. Indeed, in her home country of the Philippines, Mary Jane’s recruiters are currently being prosecuted for human trafficking. Though her case has elicited much public sympathy, Mary Jane is stranded between two nations, each aggressively pursuing their own war on drugs, and her future is uncertain.

Mary Jane was born to a poor family in Nueva Ecija, an impoverished northern province of the Philippines. Her father was a seasonal worker in a nearby sugar plantation, but his meager income was not sufficient to support Mary Jane and her four siblings. Mary Jane’s mother therefore engaged in domestic work abroad, when she could find it. When Mary Jane was 13, after completing just one year of high school, she was forced to abandon her education due to economic pressures. By the age of 17, Mary Jane was married, and at 18 she became a mother. Mary Jane and her husband engaged in whatever work they could find to support their young family. Mostly, they combed through garbage to separate the plastics and other recyclable materials, which they then sold.

Mary Jane wanted a better life, and so, like her mother before her, she sought out domestic work abroad, enduring the sacrifice of leaving her family behind. She embarked on a two-year contract in Dubai, but after 10 months her employer’s cook attempted to rape her. Mary Jane, desperate to escape, had to sell all of her belongings in order to finance a flight home. Despite this terrifying experience, Mary Jane knew that her best chance at lifting her family out of abject poverty was to return to domestic work abroad. Not long after her return to the Philippines, Maria Cristina Sergio—the long-term girlfriend of Mary Jane’s godbrother, Julius Lacanilao—offered Mary Jane work as a maid in Malaysia. Mary Jane accepted the opportunity, though it pained her to leave her sons, then aged one and seven. Mary Jane’s father, Cesar Veloso, explains that “I was happy at that time, because I wanted her life to be better, and so I did not stop her from taking the job.”

Mary Jane left the Philippines in April 2010, accompanied by her recruiter, Maria Cristina. When they arrived in Malaysia, however, Maria Cristina told Mary Jane that the position she had promised her was no longer available. Maria Cristina offered to search for alternative employment. After three days of uncertainty, Maria Cristina suggested that Mary Jane travel to Indonesia while they searched for other employment opportunities. Mary Jane worried that she couldn’t afford a ticket to Indonesia, but Maria Cristina assured her that “everything was taken care of.” Maria Cristina bought Mary Jane clothes and other necessary items, since Mary Jane had brought only two shirts and two pairs of pants from home. Maria Cristina and her boyfriend then gave Mary Jane an empty suitcase in which to pack her new things and dropped her at the airport to board her flight to Indonesia alone.

Upon Mary Jane’s arrival in Yogyakarta Airport on April 25, 2010, security personnel detected something suspicious in her suitcase. They emptied its contents, ripped open the seams and found 2.6kg of heroin—with a street value of about US$500,000—hidden inside. The police immediately arrested Mary Jane. Cesar Veloso said: “[w]hen I learned Mary Jane was jailed in Indonesia, I lost my mind. I felt dead. Because I raised my child[ren] well. I did not abandon them. And that child of mine was caring. Kind. Even to her teachers, she was kind.”

During the police investigation, Mary Jane received neither legal advice nor even an interpreter, although the police interrogated her in Bahasa Indonesia, a language she didn’t understand at all. Though Mary Jane’s current lawyers in the Philippines believe it is likely that the Filipino authorities were notified of Mary Jane’s arrest, no-one from the embassy contacted Mary Jane to offer her assistance. Because Mary Jane could not afford to hire a lawyer, she was represented at trial by a state-funded attorney with little experience in capital cases. These lawyers were woefully inadequate. Most notably, they failed to ensure that Mary Jane was provided with an interpreter who would allow her to adequately communicate with her lawyer, court officials, and the trial judge. Her court-appointed interpreter was not only an unlicensed student, she also translated proceedings from Bahasa into English, a language which Mary Jane only partially understood, having studied it at school during her curtailed education. Throughout her trial, Mary Jane had no meaningful understanding of the criminal process that would determine her fate.

When Mary Jane’s trial ended in October 2010, the prosecution requested a sentence of life imprisonment. In a marked departure from usual practice, the court in fact exceeded the prosecutor’s recommendation and sentenced her to death. One of Mary Jane’s appellate lawyers believes that the pivotal moment came when the trial judge asked her mid-hearing—in Bahasa—whether she regretted trafficking drugs into the country. Mary Jane didn’t understand the question and fumbled for an answer. “No,” she said, eventually. On October 11, 2010, just six months after arriving in Indonesia, Mary Jane was sentenced to death by firing squad. (This verdict was later upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015.)

Finding herself on death row, separated indefinitely from her young children, in a country where she knew no-one and did not speak the language, Mary Jane fell into despair. Losing all hope, she attempted on several occasions to kill herself by banging her head against her cell wall. Gradually, with the help of social workers and spiritual advisors, Mary Jane began to find ways to forge life-sustaining meaning while in prison. She learnt Bahasa and today speaks the language fluently. She earned the respect and friendship of many prison officers, a group of which, despite their modest salaries, collected funds in 2013 to cover the travel expenses for her parents and two sons to visit her. Thereafter, such visits were supported by the government of the Philippines; Mary Jane describes the visits she receives as “[a] spark of hope [that] fills my heart.”

In 2015, Indonesian president Joko Widodo announced that nine prisoners convicted of drug offenses would be executed as part of his war on drugs.  Mary Jane was one of them. A coalition of advocacy groups, led by the Filipino organization Migrante International, organized a vigorous campaign on her behalf. Once publicized, Mary Jane’s case elicited a lot of sympathy in the Philippines, particularly since it was reminiscent of that of Flor Contemplacion, a Filipina migrant worker executed in Singapore in 1995. Many in the Philippines felt that Contemplacion’s execution was the result of her vulnerability as a domestic worker, rather than the veracity of the evidence adduced in her case. Over 200,000 people from 127 different countries signed the #SaveMaryJane petition, and activists organized protests in the Philippines and Indonesia. Nonetheless Mary Jane’s execution was scheduled to go forward until, shortly before the execution was to take place, Maria Cristina Sergio and her boyfriend, Julius Lacanilao—the recruiters who had sent Mary Jane to Indonesia—handed themselves in to the police in the Philippines. Filipino president Benigno Aquino III requested that Indonesia keep Mary Jane alive so that she could testify against Maria Cristina and Julius, who were charged with trafficking, illegal recruitment and fraud. The Indonesian government complied. Of the nine people scheduled to be executed on April 29, 2015, Mary Jane was the only person who survived.

Following Maria Cristina’s confession, criminal proceedings were initiated in the Philippines. On January 30, 2020, Maria Cristina Sergio and Julius Lacanilao (and others ‘at large’) were found guilty of large-scale illegal recruitment involving three other female victims, who testified that the co-defendants had also recruited Mary Jane. At the same time, Sergio and Lacanilao were charged with human trafficking. Due to procedural hurdles, this case is still ongoing, but a recent judgment from the Philippine Supreme Court decreed that Mary Jane will be exempted from a Filipino law requiring that witnesses give evidence in person. In its judgment, the Court reasoned that Mary Jane must be allowed “the opportunity to speak and obtain justice for herself” by giving evidence from prison.

As long as the Philippines continues to prosecute Sergio and Lacanilao on human trafficking charges, Mary Jane, the primary witness, will continue to benefit from a reprieve in Indonesia. After those proceedings end her fate is uncertain, and her lawyers fear that the Indonesian government might schedule her execution. They hold out hope, however, that a legal finding of trafficking in the Philippines would demonstrate Mary Jane’s blamelessness and lead to her conviction in Indonesia being quashed.  Mary Jane herself hopes that her recruiters will be convicted “so that there would be nobody else who would become victimized like me [sic].” In a letter she wrote directly to her recruiters, she said: “[i]t is so painful and so hard to accept that I have to go through all of this because of people like you who do bad things.”

Despite the evidence currently before Filipino courts that Mary Jane had no knowledge of the drugs she transported, prominent anti-drug campaigns in both Indonesia and the Philippines create additional obstacles to her release. Both countries’ Presidents came to power on the back of promises to come down hard on the drug trade, and both have made punitive drug policies a hallmark of their political tenure.  Since Duterte took office in 2016, he has escalated the war on drugs in the Philippines to an unprecedented level of violence. Under his presidency, police forces have reportedly committed up to 30,000 extrajudicial killings in the name of combatting the illicit drug trade. While the former president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, was quietly sympathetic to Mary Jane’s plight, President Duterte is not. In fact, during a visit to Jakarta in 2016, President Duterte reportedly gave the go-ahead to President Widodo to authorize Mary Jane’s execution. He later explained that he supports Indonesia’s use of capital punishment for drug offenders, and that “[i]t would have left a bad taste in the mouth to be talking about having a strong posture against drugs and here you are begging for something.” President Widodo of Indonesia, for his part, has staked much of his reputation on his punitive war on drugs. This geopolitical posturing by both states is a significant barrier to Mary Jane’s release.

Mary Jane’s case has elicited considerable public sympathy both in the Philippines and Indonesia, where a high proportion of the working-class population travels abroad for domestic work. Many working-class Filipinos and Indonesians see themselves in Mary Jane, and they understand all too well how the vulnerability of foreign domestic workers can lead to exploitation. Whether public support will be sufficient to keep Mary Jane alive, or secure her release, remains to be seen. For now, Mary Jane waits in prison. She writes: “I have two small kids who need a mother’s nurturing, guidance, and love[;]…[I] hope that one day freedom and justice will take me out of this prison cell.”

To write this profile, we conducted interviews with Mary Jane’s lawyers, advocates and social workers. We also consulted court records and publicly available information. We publish this profile with Mary Jane’s consent.