MANILA/JAKARTA - As the clocked ticked on Tuesday towards midnight, the hour when nine drug traffickers were expected to be executed on a high-security prison island in Indonesia, mandarins in the Philippines waited nervously for some word from Jakarta.
There never was a response to a last-ditch appeal their government had made to spare Filipina Mary Jane Veloso. But when news came that only eight of the convicts had in the end gone before the firing squad, there was jubilation in Manila.
"We did it!" read a text message sent by a colleague to Philippines Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, who explained on Wednesday that the Southeast Asian neighbors had effectively agreed to target a drug network rather than one of its small-time mules like Veloso, a housemaid and mother of two.
"I think both sides ... have decided let's pursue this legal angle of not just hitting a mere courier and trying to go to the bigger root of the problem," he told reporters in Manila, explaining the unexpected reprieve for the Filipina.
Veloso's lawyers describe her five-year journey - from arrest at an Indonesian airport with 2.6 kg of heroin hidden in the lining of a suitcase to a close encounter with the death penalty - as one of misunderstandings and legal missteps.
When the court's sentence against her was read out in Indonesian and then translated into English, Veloso did not grasp its meaning: Only later, when a pastor explained, did the Filipina maid understand that she had been sentenced to death.
"She didn't understand anything that was happening," said Ismail Mohammed, one of her lawyers, recalling the 2010 trial in Yogyakarta, the Javanese city where months earlier the 30-year-old had arrived with the offending suitcase.
HEROIN HIDDEN IN SUITCASE
Veloso maintained her innocence throughout, insisting that she had been an unwitting drug mule for a Filipina employment recruiter who had promised Veloso a job and then presented her with $500, some new clothes and the black suitcase.
The alleged recruiter, Maria Kristina Sergio, denies any wrongdoing. She says she has no knowledge of the suitcase in question, or the drugs.
Veloso worked as a domestic helper in Dubai for nearly a year, but left to escape an abusive employer, said Erde Olalia, a member of her volunteer legal team.
She returned to the Philippines unemployed. There, a recruiter told her about a work opportunity in Malaysia, but when Veloso flew there she found there was no job to walk into.
According to an official record of the court ruling seen by Reuters, the recruiter asked Veloso - while she was waiting for the job in Malaysia to materialize - to fly to Yogyakarta to hand over a suitcase to a man called "Jhon". She bought her a round-trip ticket and said she would pay for her accommodation.
And so, on April 25, 2010, Veloso landed at Yogyakarta airport, where authorities discovered packages of heroin wrapped in foil hidden inside her luggage.
The court record said Veloso's plea that she did not know heroin was in the suitcase was baseless because she admitted to having seen black tape covering slits in the lining of the bag when she was packing her clothes.
" ... the accused ignored this and continued to fill the bag with clothes. Moreover, the accused could not prove the truth of her unawareness in court, so the accused's denial cannot legally be used as a reason to free her of criminal responsibility."
The ruling said that, therefore, her guilt was proven - and her denial of guilt was an aggravating factor.
Veloso's lawyer said she did not see anything suspicious in the luggage and didn't think anything of the tape.
Lawyers appealed Veloso's case all the way to the Supreme Court on the grounds that, because there was no translation into her own language, Tagalog, she was not fully aware of the court proceedings. All of her appeals were denied.
While fighting Veloso's battles in Indonesia, her lawyers also filed a human trafficking complaint against the woman they said was the recruiter, Sergio.
In a surprising turn of events less than 24 hours before the executions were due to take place, Sergio went to police in the Philippines, seeking protection after receiving death threat calls and text messages.
Police said there was no criminal case yet against Sergio.
In a Philippines radio interview on Wednesday, Sergio said she had accompanied Veloso to Malaysia, given her some money and shared a hotel room with her there. She denied that she was a recruiter or that she had given Veloso the suitcase.
She recalled that one day Veloso called her from Kuala Lumpur airport to say she was flying to Indonesia. Sergio said the phone connection was then cut but, before it was, Veloso implored her to take care of her family.
"I stand by what I said that I have no knowledge of the bag ... and know nothing of drugs, not even a trace," she said.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino leapt on the developments at home to make a final appeal on Tuesday for Veloso to be spared, arguing that she could be a vital witness in prosecuting human and drugs syndicates plaguing the region.
With just a few hours left before the executions, his plea appeared to have been rebuffed, which was why her reprieve came as such a surprise.
"This solution is really saying let's pursue this because maybe there's something better we can do in really addressing the issue of drugs in Indonesia, drugs in the Philippines and even in drugs in the country where the suitcase of Mary Jane came from," said Almendras.
President Joko Widodo, whose steadfastness on executions as part of a war on drugs has strong public support, told reporters he spared Veloso because of the bigger trafficking case, but he left little doubt that she would eventually be executed.
"This is not a cancellation but a postponement," he said. (Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in CILCAP, Indonesia, by Charlotte Greenfield, Fergus Jensen, Gayatri Suroyo and Fransiska Nangoy in JAKARTA, and by Manuel Mogato in MANILA; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)