The Ninth Coffin

Her death was set.

Nine coffins were brought to Nusakambangan island in Central Java earlier that day; they were to be filled with bodies of whom Indonesia considers the worst criminals.

So bad that they deserved to face a firing squad of 10 and have a bullet pierce through their heart, and then through the head at close range should their bodies survive the first blow.

At past 12am, meters away from the execution area, Mary Jane Veloso’s sisters Maritess and Darling heard a barrage of gunshots. Darling said they were so loud she felt she was the one being shot.

Minutes before that, Indonesian Police told them Mary Jane had wanted one final talk, a talk that didn’t happen.

Maritess cried because then she will never know what their youngest wanted to tell them for the last time.

But there was a miracle at 11th hour. While relatives of other convicts cried over the deaths of their loved ones, Maritess and Darling were being informed their sister was alive. She was spared. Allowed to live in the meantime.

Over at the Indonesian Embassy on Salcedo Street in Makati, rallyists jumped in jubilation, hugged each other, hugged strangers. When they were done wiping their tears of joy, they marched to Mendiola near Malacanang Palace.


The fight is not over. Mary Jane remains on death row.

Earlier that night, on her way to the execution island, Maritess told a News Anchor on air that the Department of Foreign Affairs barred them from talking to the media in the early stage of their sister’s case.

Their mother Celia had been very vocal about her disappointment with the government.

Her daughter was tried in Indonesian Court without Philippine lawyers, she said.

She was tried with a translator who was still studying and didn’t bear the necessary certification to speak on behalf of her. The translator only knew English and Bahasa, Mary Jane only spoke Tagalog fluently.

Only when the death sentence was given that the Philippines finally gave her legal assistance.

Lawyers from the National Union of Lawyers in the Philippines (NULP), a volunteer group of humanitarian lawyers, had also stepped in.

Mary Jane’s family can testify that it was the NULP lawyers who fought the hardest for Mary Jane.

They pursued the case against Mary Jane’s recruiter Kristina Sergio, and worked on getting a PDEA report to corroborate her story that she was duped to carry a suitcase with heroin hidden in its sleeves.

In Indonesia, activist group Migrant Care was working day in and day out to convince their government Mary Jane was innocent.

President Joko Widodo was not likely to have a change of heart. Amid international outcry, and threats from power nations such as France and Australia, he faced state leaders at the ASEAN Summit in Malaysia firm and unapologetic. It’s a trade of nine lives for a thousand others who are victimized by drug use, he said.

He met with President Noynoy Aquino for five minutes, only to reiterate the executions will push through as planned.

Clock was ticking. At noon of April 28, Aquino called Widodo, breaking protocol his spokesmen said, to attempt a Hail Mary for Mary Jane.

He invoked a right to respect the Philippine Justice System: allow Mary Jane to testify against her illegal recruiter, let her live meanwhile.

At around 5 pm, Widodo called for an Emergency Meeting with his Cabinet and Migrant Care.

Speaking to State of the Nation with Jessica Soho, Migrant Care’s Anis Hidayah said that she had to reiterate to Widodo the crucial information that charges had been filed against Mary Jane’s recruiter.

In an interview with TIME, she said she cried in front of President Widodo and told him that Mary Jane represents the thousand Indonesian Migrant Workers who had also become drug mules, and were on death row themselves.

She was one of them, she pleaded Widodo.


In between the last minutes, Pres. Aquino faxed a buzzer-beater letter, a move which he said resulted to the meeting that saved Mary Jane’s life.

On Twitter, however, the Indonesian Cabinet Secretariat said Widodo “listens and pays attention to human rights activists who keep guarding him in his constitutional duties.”

After the News of Mary Jane’s reprieve, a debate sprung on: who to credit for saving her?

Activists say it was the people.

The DFA said it was the government.

Some people said we should be thanking the government. After all, state affairs can only be settled through state communications.

Some people said the debate was unnecessary, and the better thing to do is just rejoice.

I find it difficult to do either. Here are the reasons why:

There are currently 88 Filipinos on death row, 42 of them are due to drug trafficking.

In Saudi Arabia, Junevie San Juan faces her last trial for allegedly smuggling Shabu into the country. The government has yet to help her.

Elvie, her mother, was exasperated when interviewed by GMA’s Marisol Abdurahman. As though the tears had dried, her eyes were fierce, her face stiffened, voice getting louder as she explained how she had gone to DFA and OWWA countless times only to be told to wait.

“Paulit-ulit ‘yan, pabalik-balik ako, ang sabi hintayin lang ninyo Misis. Hanggang kailan ako maghihintay? Kapag huli na ang lahat? Duon lang sila kikilos??”

The Volunteers against Crime and Corruption (VACC) is currently assisting the San Juans. But they can only do so much.

At the DFA Headquarters in Pasay, Asec. Charles Jose was stumped when Junevie’s name was mentioned.

Reporters had to say her name twice: “Junevie San Juan, Saudi Arabia, Junevie San Juan, are you aware?”

Jose said “Hindi po,” then continued to say they were on top of all death row cases.

To continue this debate would be to continue to demand accountability from our officials.

To continue this debate would be to tell them, ‘We are closely watching you.’

If we say it is solely the government to thank, even when the facts clearly indicate that different sectors had much to contribute to her reprieve, it would be insulting the lawyers who volunteered for her, Indonesian Activists who dared tell their President in his face that he was making a mistake, and all the others who camped for days to increase the political pressure on both governments.

Worse, if we say it is solely the government to thank, it would be to forgive them for their shortcomings in the five years that Mary Jane was incarcerated, and it would be allowing them to think we had forgotten.

And it would allow them to think they could do it again.

To do it again to Junevie, and to the 87 others who are counting on them to survive.

To do it again to Mary Jane who doesn’t know just how much time she has left.


There is much to say about activism, especially in the Philippines — people either love them or hate them.

What they do in the streets (or the internet) may bother you, it may annoy you, but it cannot harm you.

But what the government does, or does not do, greatly affects you. It sent Mary Jane and Junevie to the doors of illegal recruiters and drug syndicates, and later on, behind prison bars of foreign lands who do not sympathize with poor mothers who only wanted to give their children good lives.

If we do not continue this debate, it will be treading on a dangerous path to a democracy that gives a free pass to a government whose system has allowed so many of us to die.

If we do not continue this debate, we may as well have let Mary Jane take that bullet to the heart on the dawn of April 29.

Then let Junevie suffer the same fate.

There is a remaining coffin in Nusakambangan island, if we do not continue this debate, we will be allowing that coffin to carry the body of Mary Jane because we had failed to carry her ourselves.

If we do not continue this debate, there will be more coffins, and we might as well put the final nails.


All photos care of Ephraim Aguilar, my co-producer on State of the Nation, who camped out at the Embassy at the eve of her supposed execution.


One thought on “The Ninth Coffin

  1. Reblogged this on Takeshi's Flight and commented:
    “If we do not continue this debate, it will be treading on a dangerous path to a democracy that gives a free pass to a government whose system has allowed so many of us to die.
    If we do not continue this debate, we may as well have let Mary Jane take that bullet to the heart on the dawn of April 29.”

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