Jakarta, Indonesia – For more than a decade, Mary Jane Veloso has been held in a prison in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta awaiting execution after being found guilty of drug trafficking.
This year, her family got to see her for the first time in five years.
“Mary Jane has been here in Indonesia for a very long time already. Before Mary Jane’s father and I pass away, we hope that she comes home for her children and she will be the one that takes care of her children,” her mother Celia told Al Jazeera.
“It’s been a very long time. We want her back,” she added.
Like many Filipinos, Veloso sought work overseas because the money was better than at home.
Leaving her two sons with her mother, she first went to Dubai where she spent nine months as a domestic worker.
After another household employee allegedly tried to rape her, Veloso left her job and returned home to the Philippines where she was approached by a woman named Maria Kristina Sergio who said she had a job for her in Malaysia.
Eager for another chance, Veloso accepted the offer but when she got to Malaysia, she found there was no work.
Sergio, her contact, instead suggested Veloso join her on a holiday to Indonesia, but when the women landed at Yogyakarta’s Adisutjipto Airport in April 2010, officials found 2.6kg (5.7 pounds) of heroin in 25-year-old Veloso’s suitcase.
Six months later, she was found guilty of drug trafficking and sentenced to death.
Despite a tough line on drugs by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who was first elected in 2014, Veloso has so far managed to escape the firing squad.
She won a last-minute reprieve in 2015, when seven foreigners and an Indonesian were executed, after Sergio turned herself in to the Philippines police on allegations of people trafficking and the government in Manila under then President Benigno Aquino asked for Veloso’s case to be reviewed.
As Widodo enters his last few months in office, Veloso’s family are now hoping the outgoing president will agree to clemency for the Filipino after, in March, giving a rare pardon to another domestic worker who had also been sentenced to death.
‘Forced to go abroad’
Veloso’s supporters argue she is a victim of human trafficking.
According to the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), which is raising awareness about Veloso’s case, the drugs were “secretly stashed in a bag given to her by the brother of Tintin’s [Sergio’s] boyfriend in Malaysia without Mary Jane’s knowledge, consent or intention”.
Hailing from Nueva Ecija, north of Manila on the island of Luzon, all the women in the Veloso family were among the millions of Filipinos working overseas to provide for their families.
“Our life is very difficult, it’s very hard, we don’t have much [money] to eat,” their mother Celia Veloso explained. “That’s why we are forced to make a choice to go abroad. All of my daughters, four of them… all worked overseas”.
Mary Jane’s recruiters for the supposed job in Malaysia, Sergio and Julius Lacanilao, were found guilty in January 2020 of running an alleged illegal recruitment network and sentenced to life in prison.
Veloso has also filed a case against the pair in the same court but has been unable to give testimony because it needs to be delivered in person and she cannot do so because while being on death row in Indonesia.
“The only barrier right now for that to move forward is for both governments, both Indonesia and the Philippine government, to agree on the technicality… where this testimony will be taken,” said Joanna Concepcion, who chairs Migrante International, an organisation advocating for Veloso.
Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah told Al Jazeera he had not followed up on the issue and referred questions to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights.
The law ministry spokesperson did not reply to Al Jazeera’s questions.
Widodo and former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office after Aquino, shared the same hardline approach to drugs, with Duterte leading a brutal crackdown, which left thousands dead and is now the subject of an International Criminal Court investigation.
Instead of seeking clemency from Indonesia, Widodo said Duterte had given the green light for Veloso’s execution in 2015. The Philippines, which does not use capital punishment, said Duterte had said he would simply respect the judicial process.
Migrante International’s Concepcion says there does not seem to have been much of a change in approach since Ferdinand Marcos Jr took office in June 2022.
“He continues the same policy and has not publicly said that it would change anything that Duterte had done,” she said.
Indonesia and the Philippines are founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Indonesia was the first country Marcos Jr visited after he was elected president..
“Maybe he is playing it safe,” Concepcion added. “It was his first state visit at that time as president, so I’m sure that the agenda items that he would discuss were very carefully planned out, of what specific issues that his first state visit would focus on”.
In the first two years of Widodo’s first term, 18 people, including two women, were executed. All had been found guilty of drug offences.
Under international law, where the death penalty exists, it is supposed to be used only for the “most serious crimes”, a threshold that does not include drug crimes.
Amid widespread criticism from national, regional and global human rights defenders, there has not been an execution in Indonesia since July 2016, according to Afif Abdul Qoyim, coordinator of the Community Legal Aid Institute (LBHM), an organisation that campaigns against the death penalty.
Activists have been calling for a moratorium, but one is not formally in place.
“[The president] still can arrange an execution any time he wants, or the next government can also do it in the early part of their reign,” Afif told Al Jazeera.
Earlier this year, Jokowi gave clemency to another female migrant worker, Merri Utami, who was almost executed in 2016.
Even though Merri Utami’s and Veloso’s cases share some similarities, Afif notes some key differences.
“One of the factors, probably, is the nationality. Merri Utami is Indonesian, while Mary Jane has a foreign nationality,” he explained, adding that Indonesia often tried to suggest that it was foreigners who were most involved in drug trafficking.
Still, Mary Jane Veloso is not losing hope.
While Marcos Jr may seem to have continued the Duterte approach to the case, on the sidelines of his visit to Indonesia, his Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo made a request for “executive clemency” for Veloso during a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi in Jakarta.
Now Veloso’s legal team is lodging an appeal before Widodo leaves office.
“The truth is, the first clemency was to SBY [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president from 2004-2014]. Mary Jane never asked clemency to Jokowi,” Veloso’s lawyer Agus Salim told Al Jazeera.
The Indonesia general election is scheduled for February 2024.
“We are going to keep pushing until Widodo formally leaves the office… We’re still hopeful that there are some actions, some development,” Concepcion said.
Veloso’s family is anxiously awaiting developments.
Her eldest son Mark Danielle is now 20 years old,
“It’s hard to grow up without my mother,” he said. “We really want to be with my mother and be able to see her every day, to see her, to hug her.”