There’s a marked difference in public opinion around the Mary Jane Veloso case, compared to that of the three Filipinos executed in China in 2011. The three, like Veloso, were charged with drug trafficking.
In 2011, while the government moved heaven and earth to try to get a reprieve for the convicted Filipinos in China, there was much less public sympathy. In fact, in the blogs and Internet postings that I read, many wrote that the Filipinos deserved to be executed because drug trafficking is so heinous a crime, given the suffering and death it causes.
When the imminent execution of Veloso first surfaced last month, the initial response was similar to what we saw in 2011, meaning little public sympathy. But as details around the Veloso case emerged, more people have come out opposing the executions. The argument is that Veloso herself was a victim of human trafficking. What we see is a response more similar to the Flor Contemplacion case, a nation feeling increasingly frustrated with the helplessness of many Filipinos forced to work overseas.
The number of signatures for a petition posted on Change.org calling on Indonesian President Joko Widodo to pardon Veloso because she was a victim of trafficking had a slow start but has been growing rapidly. On Monday the Inquirer reported some 26,000 signatures. By Tuesday at around 10 a.m. when I checked, it had 139,000 signatures; an hour later there were 2,000 more signatures.
The Veloso case, as well as that of the whole “Bali 9” group—one Indonesian and eight foreign nationals, including Veloso, who were scheduled for execution in Indonesia on April 28—brings out the flaws around the death penalty, foremost of which is the chance of wrongful conviction. Besides the Indonesian courts’ disregard of Veloso’s being a victim of human trafficking, she was not provided with a competent interpreter during the trial.
Other members of the Bali 9 also claimed that they were tried by judges who wanted to be bribed. Because they couldn’t give the bribes, they paid with a conviction and the death penalty.
We’re seeing, too, how Veloso and the others are being used for political capital by Indonesian President Widodo, who was just sworn in as president in October last year. Widodo has had to bend backwards to project a tough image, especially because during the presidential election, he was running against a former army general. Under his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, there was a moratorium on executions, which drew public accusations of the government becoming too “lax.”
Widodo’s also had a rough start, with his public approval ratings for legal affairs, economics and politics dropping even during his first 100 days. Only in the social and security sectors has his approval ratings improved, an earlier round of execution of drug traffickers probably contributing to his better score with security.
It is unfortunate that Veloso was lumped together with other convicts, notably two Australian nationals, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, who were considered ringleaders in drug trafficking. When first arrested, the two projected an image of arrogance: so, when the Australian government protested their death sentences, Indonesians saw this as westerners trying to impose their views. There’s more pressure then on Widodo to take a hard-line stand, almost as if to defend national sovereignty.
We see then how the death penalty can be due to wrongful convictions, and yet be implemented because of political reasons. That makes the death penalty itself heinous.
Then there’s the argument, being used by the Indonesian government, that executing the drug traffickers will send a strong message to the world that Indonesia is tough with drugs. This idea of the death penalty being a deterrent for heinous crimes is an issue that needs to be studied. We should be looking at China, where there have been numerous executions of drug traffickers.
Then there’s the Philippines, where the death penalty was abolished in 2006. (We actually first abolished the death penalty in our “People Power” constitution of 1986, but brought back the capital punishment in 1993 for heinous crimes. Leo Echegaray was the first to be executed, in 1999, with this restoration of the death penalty. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who used to support the death penalty, had a change of heart, ordering the commutation of more than 1,200 death row convicts to life imprisonment. In 2006, Congress approved the abolition of the death penalty.
We should have studies to compare drug use and drug trafficking during periods with and without the death penalty. What’s notable is the latest Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS) reports a decline in drug use among young adults over the years, even without the death penalty. Of course, we can’t use this decline alone to draw definitive conclusions about the death penalty and drug use, especially because capital punishment in the Philippines has focused on murder and rape convicts, with the one notable exception of the Chinese drug dealer Lim Seng, executed early after Marcos declared martial law.
Returning to the political angle, Indonesia does stand to lose in terms of its international image, given that opposition to the death penalty has been spreading. Amnesty International reports that 140 countries have outlawed the death penalty. (Notice the use of words—the death penalty, a legal prescription, is actually “outlawed,” made illegal.) Amnesty International also reports 35 countries where there is a de facto ban on the death penalty, meaning, no one has been executed for several years, even if capital punishment remains in the books.
In Indonesia there are also groups opposed to the death penalty, and they have been more active because of the Bali 9. There does seem to be greater sympathy for Veloso, who is the only woman among the nine. Perhaps, too, Indonesians sympathize with Veloso because there are also many Indonesian women who have to work overseas, many of them victims of abuse similar to that experienced by Filipinos.
Indonesians have formed a Koalisi Anti Hukuman Mati or Coalition of Anti-Death Penalty NGOs. The group has issued statements calling for a stop to the executions. Even the government’s own National Commission on Human Rights has spoken out against the executions.
By and large though, it would seem Indonesians are like Filipinos, still generally supportive of the death penalty because of the idea that executions will deter crimes. An interesting take in Indonesia is that the public favors expanding the crimes for which capital punishment can be meted out. There is support for the death penalty being used against corrupt officials, something that is being done now in China. I can imagine how appealing this new take on heinous crimes will be for Filipinos.
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