MANILA, Philippines?(UPDATE 4) Three Filipinos convicted of drug smuggling were executed in China Wednesday, triggering condemnation in the Catholic Philippines and despair for family members who shared their final moments.
"It is a sad day for all of us,? Vice President Jejomar Binay said as he confirmed that the three were put to death by lethal injection.
?Until the last moment, we did everything we could to save the three," Binay, who was in Qatar, said in a television interview.
Sally Ordinario-Villanueva, 32, and Ramon Credo, 42, met their families for the last time early Wednesday before they were executed in Xiamen, said Philippine Consul Noel Novicio. Elizabeth Batain, 38, was allowed to meet with her relatives hours ahead of her execution in Shenzhen, Novicio said.
The executions came after repeated pleas by the Philippine government for their sentences to be commuted were turned down, and ended vigils in the country where supporters of the trio had prayed for a miracle.
The three were arrested separately in 2008 carrying packages containing at least four kilograms of heroin and were convicted the following year. Smuggling more than 50 grams of heroin or other drugs is punishable by death in China.
"Our government had taken every available opportunity to appeal to the authorities of China for clemency in their cases," Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.
"In the end, however, the sentences were imposed."
The three were due to have been put to death last February 20 and 21 but were granted a temporary reprieve following Binay?s trip to Beijing on February 18.
The three were not aware they would be executed Wednesday although their sentences were promulgated early in the day, Novicio said. China normally does not announce executions.
The three were allowed to meet their relatives for an hour before they were put to death through lethal injection, in what turned out to be devastatingly emotional encounters.
Villanueva's relatives said she did not know that she was due to be executed on Wednesday, and was surprised to see her family there.
"I was the first one to see her, we locked eyes and we both cried. She said what are you doing here, why are you all crying, am I going to die," younger sister Mylene said on a radio interview.
"She tried to console us. She said, it's okay. I have accepted my fate. I will be your angel and watch over you."
"She was crying, she was partly incoherent. She had a lot of things to say," said Jason Ordinario, a brother of Villanueva who along with another sister and their parents met her as the final verdict was read in a court in Xiamen city.
"They already gave us (her) things. It's too much, they gave us only one hour (with her). They have no mercy," Ordinario-Villanueva's sister, Mylene, said in a separate text message from Xiamen to her family in the Philippines.
She said that her sister was blessed by a priest and "she said she wants to be forgiven for all her sins but she insisted that she was a victim."
"She asked us to take care of her children, to take care of each other and to help one another. I have not accepted what will happen. We are forcing ourselves to accept it but I can't," she said in a radio interview.
Villaneuva's children, aged 12 and nine, were not able to see or talk with their mother before she was killed. They did not travel to China and local authorities would not allow mobile phones into the meeting room.
Novicio said earlier that Villanueva and Credo met their families for the last time before they were scheduled to die by lethal injection in Xiamen. Batain, met her relatives before her planned execution in Shenzhen.
Surrounded by a throng of supporters and journalists, Villanueva's relatives in Manila erupted in anguished cries as news of the execution broke.
There were similar reactions at the home of Credo, but the family of Batain had requested privacy and no media were with them.
Outside the Villanueva home in a northern Manila slum was a poster comparing her to Flor Contemplacion, a Filipina maid whose hanging in Singapore in 1995 led to a cooling of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Contemplacion was convicted of murder, although it was widely perceived in the Philippines that she was framed.
Her fate remains an infamous tale about the perils faced by the nine million Filipinos working abroad, many of whom face exploitation while toiling away in low-paying jobs hoping to earn enough money to support relatives at home.
Abolish death penalty
Amnesty International as well as the influential Roman Catholic church swiftly condemned the executions.
"We strongly condemn the executions of the three Filipinos," Agence France-Presse quoted Amnesty's Philippine representative Aurora Parong.
"The Philippines should have taken a stronger action, and it is now its moral duty to lead a campaign against death penalty in Asia."
Amnesty International says China is the world's biggest executioner, with thousands of convicts killed every year. The Philippines has abolished the death penalty.
Roman Catholic bishops asked the public to pray for the eternal repose of the three.
"We had knocked on the doors of heaven to pray for what turned out to be an impossible wish," Edwin Corros, executive secretary of church's commission for the pastoral care of migrants, told AFP.
"We call on China to abolish death penalty. We believe no one has the right to take a human life."
It was the first time that Filipino nationals were executed in China.
Pleas for mercy
The Philippine government insisted it did all it could to save the lives of the three.
It argued the trio, who are among 227 Filipinos jailed in China for drug offenses, were from poor families and had been duped by international crime syndicates into becoming drug couriers.
In its appeals for clemency, which included three letters by President Benigno Aquino III to his Chinese counterpart and a February visit to Beijing by Binay, the government said it was able to identify and arrest some members of the drug syndicate that took advantage of the Filipinos.
Jayson Ordinario, Ordinario-Villanueva's younger brother, said last week that his sister was hired as a cellphone dealer in Xiamen and was tricked into carrying a bag that had a secret compartment loaded with heroin, allegedly by her job recruiter.
In another move seeking to spare the Filipinos, Aquino decided not to send a representative to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December in Oslo, Norway, honoring jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Manila also deported to Beijing last month 14 Taiwanese facing fraud charges in China despite protests from Taipei.
But the Chinese government insisted there would be no favors for the trio, and that their cases would be dealt with according to domestic laws.
"Drug trafficking is universally recognized as a severe crime," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters at a regular news conference Tuesday in Beijing.
"In China, our judicial authorities handled the case independently and we grant equal treatment to foreign drug traffickers. The involved individuals rights and treatment are ensured and safeguarded according to the law. China has fulfilled its international obligations in the process," she said
She added, "We'd like to stress this is an isolated individual case. We would not like to see any impact on bilateral relations."
China and the Philippines also are facing off in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest sea lanes, where a Philippine oil exploration ship last month reported being harassed by two Chinese patrol boats. They left after the Philippine military deployed two aircraft.
The Chinese ambassador in Manila said earlier that the executions had nothing to do with the territorial spat.
The plight of Filipinos overseas is an emotional issue in the Philippines and one of the pillars of the country's foreign policy. About 10 percent of the Philippines' 94 million people toil abroad to escape widespread poverty and unemployment at home.