Aquino 'broke protocol' to save Mary Jane Veloso

MANILA, Philippines – "Cab Sec, we did it."

The mild-mannered Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario sent this one-sentence message to "Cab Sec" – Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras – at 2:20 am on Wednesday, April 29.

Through this text message, Del Rosario broke the news: Indonesia decided to delay the execution of Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipina set to be killed by firing squad at 1 am Wednesday. 

Del Rosario's spokesman, Charles Jose, then held a minute-long media briefing around 2:20 am. He told journalists on a stakeout at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, "The Lord has answered our prayers." 

Almendras recounted this series of events – including President Benigno Aquino III's fruitful breach in diplomatic protocol – that led to a reprieve for Veloso. 

Almendras said a turning point was Aquino's conversation with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Tuesday, April 28.

In a last-minute phone call to Marsudi, Aquino requested Indonesia to turn Veloso into a state witness. Aquino said this will help Indonesia pin down a drug trafficking syndicate, which allegedly includes Veloso's recruiters. 

Del Rosario said Indonesia granted Veloso a reprieve "to allow Mary Jane to give testimony in connection with the complaint filed against her recruiters." 

Almendras said: "The President sort of broke protocol. He talked directly to the foreign affairs minister of Indonesia, which is not, in a way, supposed to be. He's only supposed to be talking to his counterpart there, but that shows you how determined the President was to move that message as fast as possible."

Almendras said Aquino spoke with Marsudi while in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Langkawi, Malaysia. 

The normal protocol, he said, is for the foreign ministers of two countries to arrange a conversation between their respective presidents. 

"When that was being done – Secretary Albert was ready to call the minister of foreign affairs of Indonesia – the President said, 'I want to talk to her,'" Almendras said.

Philippine officials, at that time, didn't know if Widodo was on a plane back to Indonesia. 

Almendras said: "It was the President himself who talked to the Indonesian foreign minister. The Indonesian foreign minister was quite surprised, because normally that's not done. But when the President did that, she promised, 'Mr President, I will immediately relay your message to both the President and to whoever else needs to know in Jakarta.'"

Aquino "was adamant" in telling his officials, too, that the Philippines should transmit its request to Indonesia "as fast as we can."

Widodo: 'Justice' for Veloso

"Believe me, every single telephone number that we could call yesterday, we tried. Even the operator of the government office answered at 5 o' clock, 'No one is here because it's 5 o' clock,'" Almendras recalled.

He added that "as late as 11 o' clock" on Tuesday, Del Rosario and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima "were still trying to push for that conversation" with Indonesian Attorney General H. M. Prasetyo.

Earlier on Tuesday night, Prasetyo said Widodo ordered his office to proceed with the execution of Veloso, along with 8 others, "according to the rules." 

Echoing Widodo's hardline stance on the "supremacy of law," Prasetyo said Tuesday evening: "Don't force us to cancel or postpone the executions. If we do, we will be perceived as weak."

He changed his tune as dawn drew near.

In the early hours of Wednesday, Prasetyo confirmed that Veloso's execution was delayed "because there was a last-minute plea from the Philippine president."

"There was someone who surrendered today. She claimed she was the one who recruited Mary Jane," the Indonesian attorney general said.

He referred to Tuesday's surrender of Veloso's alleged illegal recruiter, Maria Kristina Sergio. While maintaining her innocence, Sergio faces charges of illegal recruitment, estafa, and human trafficking before the Philippines' justice department. 

Widodo said on Wednesday: "The decision to delay the execution was taken by the President after receiving reports about an ongoing legal process in the Philippines. Because the legal process is still ongoing in the Philippines, we must ensure Mary Jane Veloso deserves justice." – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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