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Will Indonesia Stop Executing Mules and Finally Start Using Them as Informants?

The execution of Mary Jane Veloso has been postponed to allow her to testify against her alleged recruiter. In Indonesia, this is a big change.

Philippine national Mary Jane Veloso on trial in Indonesia. Image via

Mary Jane Veloso departed from the Philippines five years ago, excited at the opportunity to earn a little more income as a domestic worker and provide better for her two children.

What she didn't expect is that upon landing in Indonesia, airport officials would slash open her bag and find a 2.6-kg stash of heroin.

Mary Jane was among nine people slated to be executed in Indonesia by firing squad on the night of April 28 over drug-related charges. Eight were killed—Mary Jane's execution was stayed after intensive lobbying by the Philippine government and human rights groups so she could serve as a witness in the trial against her alleged recruiter Maria Christina Sergio in the Philippines.


The death row affair has sparked a global condemnation of Indonesia's harsh war on drugs; Australia, whose two citizens were executed, withdrew their ambassador just hours after the execution.

But amidst the grief and outrage, Mary Jane's case may well beckon a vital shift in how Indonesia investigates, prosecutes and punishes drug-related offences: from executing low-level offenders to using them as informants.

That concept, of course, isn't exactly new. A common way prosecutors get testimony in drug cases is to offer leniency if a defendant testifies against another alleged offender. But this is not a strategy used widely in Indonesia. Singapore—another country that applies capital punishment to convicted drug traffickers in some cases—only recently added the substantial assistance clause as grounds for exemption to the death penalty in 2012.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has opted to apply the harshest punishment to drug offenders. Indonesia resumed executions in 2013 after a five-year gap, the majority since then under President Joko Widodo, who ironically was elected last year for his defence of human rights. (His campaign often derided his then-opponent Prabowo Subianto's murky human rights record.) In Indonesia, death penalty for drug offences has popular support. And while it offers no real long-term solution for the nation's drug problem, it's scoring political points for the new president eager to appear tough on drugs.


But Mary Jane's case was different.

Unlike the other eight individuals who were scheduled to die alongside her, her plight drew support from within Indonesia. This was in large part because Indonesia also sends many migrant workers abroad—over 400,000 in 2014 alone—some also facing death row in countries like Saudi Arabia.

Mary Jane's sympathisers took to the streets of Jakarta and Cilacap, the port city near the prison at Nusa Kambangan Island. Demonstrators also mobilized to Indonesian embassies and consulates around the world, from Manila and Hong Kong to Washington D.C. The Internet has been abuzz, with #SaveMaryJaneVeloso a top Twitter trending topic on the night of the execution and a petition garnering more than 240,000 signatures.

But Mary Jane hasn't been saved yet: officials stress her execution is only delayed.

The Philippines, along with human rights groups, argue she was a victim—not a criminal—exploited by those arranging her employment.

In a personal narrative published on Rappler, Mary Jane recounts being duped by "Christine," the woman who promised her a job. In Malaysia, where Mary Jane was initially told she would be working, she said Christine gave her a bag to use for a trip to Indonesia.

"When we are inside the room I hold the bag but I ask Christine why the bag little heavy but she said because it's new," (sic) Mary Jane said. "I check all zipper and pocket of the bag…all empty so I don't have thinking negative" (sic).


The Philippine National Bureau of Investigation claims this makes her a "victim of human trafficking." (Under Philippine laws, human trafficking includes recruitment through deception for the purpose of exploitation.)

Her case highlights the gravest gap in Indonesia's drug policy: its failure to take into account the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable people in the drug trade.

The UN Office of Drugs and Crimes reports cases where victims of human trafficking are used to transport drugs across international borders.

Socioeconomic difficulties borne out of poverty, as well as the use of threat and coercion, make certain populations vulnerable to exploitation by drug syndicates.

Research further found an increase in the recruitment of specifically female drug mules by transnational criminal organizations, primarily in the Philippines but extending to the Southeast Asian region and as far as West Africa.

Mary Jane's supporters argue the Indonesian government needs to stop punishing couriers and instead use them as witnesses to pursue the larger network of traffickers.

Interested in Indonesia? Watch our documentary about Warias below:

Indonesia has somewhat acknowledged the idea, using the term "justice collaborator," which has been applied in select corruption cases. The term was first mentioned in article 10 of the 2006 law on witness and victim protection. For a suspect who is also a witness in the same case, "their testimony can be an object of deliberation by the judge in reducing punishment," the law states.


However, the Indonesia Judicial Monitoring Society of the University of Indonesia stated in their study that law remains vague, making it difficult to enforce. "In its application, that clause remains problematic because article 10 line 2 has many weaknesses and is understood differently by both the society and law enforcement officials," the study concludes.

"Indonesia hasn't regulated this in their law. The witness and victim protection law has very limited regulations," said Anugerah Rizki Akbari, who co-authored the study.

And members of the human rights community remain sceptical that Mary Jane's case could effect real reform.

"The law enforced in Indonesia still tends to punish the poor, but very rarely punishes the upper and middle class like corrupt officials," said Sringatin of the Indonesian Migrant Workers' Network. "The way the government enforces the law is very discriminative especially toward poor women migrant workers like Mary Jane."

Philippine President Benigno Aquino last Tuesday implored Indonesia so that Mary Jane can be handed over as a state witness against her recruiters.

"We might be able to also uncover this drug syndicate that was behind her predicament," he told Philippine media. "She does present an opportunity right now to be able to uncover all the participants and start the process of bringing them to the bars of justice."

As the toll of Indonesia's war on drugs rises, an outraged international community watches how Joko will take heed.

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