MANILA - President Aquino broke protocol when he made a last- minute appeal to Indonesian President Joko Widodo to spare Filipino drug convict Mary Jane Veloso so that she could testify in the case against her recruiter.
Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras said Aquino approached Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi personally after a BIMP-EAGA meeting in Langkawi, Indonesia on Tuesday to talk about the surrender of Veloso's recruiter, Maria Kristina P. Sergio, earlier that day.
BIMP-EAGA is the growth area among Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Regular BIMP-EAGA meetings are held in ASEAN by leaders or ministers.
Aquino wanted to tell President Widodo, who was not present in the BIMP-EAGA meeting, that Veloso's testimony was needed to convict her alleged recruiter and possibly expose the drug syndicate that sent the Filipina to Jakarta.
Almendras said Aquino broke protocol when he talked to Marsudi.
"The normal protocol to set up a conversation between two presidents is the minister of foreign affairs talks to the other minister of foreign affairs. They discuss, they agree and then the call between the two presidents is arranged," he said.
The Cabinet Secretary said Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario was about to call Marsudi when Aquino insisted on talking to the foreign minister.
He said Del Rosario tried calling Marsudi but she was unable to answer immediately since she was attending an International Monitoring Team (IMT) meeting after the BIMP-EAGA meet.
When Del Rosario finally got in touch with Marsudi, the President had to step out of an ongoing press conference so he could talk to the foreign minister.
"The President sort of broke protocol and said: 'No, I will talk to her.' It was the President himself who talked to the Indonesian foreign minister. The Indonesian foreign minister was quite surprised because normally, that is not done. When the President did that, she promised: 'Yes, Mr. President. I will immediately relay your message to both the president and to whoever else needs to know in Jakarta,'" Almendras said.
The last-minute appeal worked. Veloso, a mother of two who was arrested in 2010 after she arrived in Indonesia with heroin hidden in her suitcase, was scheduled for execution early Wednesday when she was given a last-minute reprieve.
Indonesian Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo confirmed Veloso was taken off the execution list at the last minute because of the appeal.
"There was an official request submitted to the president (Joko Widodo) and president responded to the request. We gave the Philippines government some time to reveal the truth of human trafficking crime. The Philippines government has asked Indonesia to postpone the execution of Mary Jane (Veloso), as she needs to testify for the case. Mary Jane was asked to give detailed information and testify, that's why we postponed it as we respected the ongoing legal process in the Philippines," Prasetyo said.
REPRIEVE CAME ONE MINUTE BEFORE EXECUTION
Almendras said that even before the last-minute appeal, Aquino already talked to the Indonesian President during a pull-aside meeting after the opening ceremony of the 26th ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Monday.
While Widodo showed sympathy for Veloso's plight, the Indonesian attorney general said the executions would proceed as scheduled.
After hearing the news, Aquino instructed Almendras, Del Rosario and Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma to continue to "do everything we can to save Mary Jane until they execute her."
On Tuesday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima informed the President and Cabinet members about the surrender of Mary Jane's alleged recruiter. Sergio turned herself in to police in Cabanatuan at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday.
President Aquino then called a quick huddle with the Cabinet officials and made a decision "that they would pursue this angle."
Since the Philippine officials did not know if President Widodo was on a plane to Langkawi, Aquino made a decision to approach the Indonesian foreign minister instead.
"The key there was how do we convince the Indonesians that we had enough of a resource or a situation with the recruiter here in the Philippines to merit the stay that was being asked," Almendras said.
Aquino also told Cabinet officials to make sure that Justice Secretary Leila de Lima would transmit "whatever information she had to her counterpart in Indonesia so they can appreciate the merits and the information that we now had, which is relevant to the Mary Jane."
The Cabinet officials said they were sure that the message reached President Widodo on Tuesday but there was no reply. When Philippine officials arrived in Manila, they again tried to contact Indonesian officials after the 72-hour notice had already expired.
Almendras said De Lima failed to contact any Indonesian official on Tuesday night.
It turned out the calls were no longer needed since a memo sent by De Lima had reached Indonesian officials at 5 p.m. Tuesday and was the topic of discussion that eventually led to the last- minute reprieve.
ONLY A POSTPONEMENT
In an interview with radio DZMM, Atty. Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers in the Philippines (NUPL) said the reprieve is only a postponement of Veloso's execution.
He said sources confirmed that the reprieve came just a minute before Veloso was supposed to be executed via firing squad.
"The decision came almost a minute before the [execution]. It was like a movie," he said.
Veloso is now back in a cell in Yogyakarta prison. Almendras said the next step is to prove that Veloso is a victim of a drug trafficking syndicate while also helping Indonesia curb the drug problem.
Veloso's family said their prayers had been answered after Mary Jane came out alive from the execution island on Wednesday.
"I am so happy. I can't believe it. I thought earlier there was no hope," Veloso's mom told radio DZMM early Wednesday.
"A miracle has happened," she added.