Philippines set for `innocent' verdict on hanged maid

Singapore execution/ outrage grows

Stephen Vines
Saturday 01 April 1995 23:02

HAS THE "smoking gun" been found in the Philippines' attempt to prove that Singapore wrongfully hanged the maid Flor Contemplacion for a double murder? There was no doubt among the audience who crowded into Thursday's hearing of Manila's commission of inquiry into the affair that has become nothing short of a national crusade. The chairman, Justice Emilio Gancayco, triumphantly declared: "We are getting to the truth, as you can see."

He spoke after applause for evidence given by two National Bureau of Investigation doctors, who performed an autopsy on the exhumed body of Delia Maga, one of those Mrs Contemplacion was found guilty of killing in Singapore.

They laid into the Singaporean autopsy report carried out at the time of the murders in May 1991. Dr Maximo Reyes, delivering his evidence with frequent theatrical flourishes, concluded by saying there was only a "highly remote" possibility that the hanged maid was guilty of Mrs Maga's murder.

Although the body of the murder victim is now little more than a skeleton, the pathologists, who said they had both conducted around 10,000 autopsies, found evidence of serious injuries. The skull was fractured and the ribcage damaged in eight places. The Filipino doctors believe that Mrs Maga put up a vigorous struggle before being strangled, although they cannot confirm strangulation, because the body is too decomposed.

Mrs Maga was 8ins taller and a lot heavier than the woman found guilty of murdering her. This, in Dr Reyes's view, makes it difficult to believe that Mrs Contemplacion could have carried out the assault.

However, the Singaporean authorities are sticking to their version of events, and, in a manner likely to further enrage Filipinos, are airily dismissing the new autopsy findings. They say that Mrs Maga was strangled, and only one skull injury is mentioned in their medical examination.

President Fidel Ramos now wants Singapore to seek an impartial third- party opinion on Mrs Maga's death.

The President is shifting uncomfortably as he receives hourly updates on the proceedings taking place on the sixth floor of the National Library, where the presidential commission is heading closer and closer to a verdict which will rebut Singapore's version of events. He has pledged to sever diplomatic relations if this is the case, but clearly would rather not be responsible for such a serious fracture in the usually cordial ties among members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).

The evidence supplied last Thursday may not be conclusive, but it is stoking up plenty of heat. The Manila government whisked an air force C-130 off on a "rescue mission" last week to ferry home Filipina domestics who wanted a quick exit from Singapore. Mr Ramos commended the crew, who simply flew the aircraft between two international airports, for performing their duties with diligence, dedication and discipline.

In the event, only 84 women presented themselves to be "rescued". Some brought horror stories of their sojourn, while others unobligingly expressed a desire to return to Singapore.

Meanwhile the Philippines film industry is gearing itself up for a battle royal, as Mrs Contemplacion's estranged widower and her mother prepare to sell rival versions of her story to two different film production companies, and leading actresses line up to play the role of the maid sent to the gallows.

Another film company, well known for blood-and-guts productions, is at work on the victim's story: Victim No. 1: Delia Maga (Massacre in Singapore).

The uproar comes as two rival television stations are locked in a bitter ratings war, requiring ever more bellicose reporting to secure victory. There is also an election campaign humming in the background. The circumstances are hardly conducive to rational debate.

Although Mrs Contemplacion is hardly the first of the Philippines' 3 million overseas workers to have been portrayed on the receiving end of rough justice, her case has stimulated a mood of national fury that reaches into all sections of the community.

In part the anger is over Singaporean arrogance and lack of compassion, but it is also engendered by the shame of having to send so many workers overseas to support families back home.

And there is also anger at the way these workers are treated by the Philippines diplomatic corps. Flor Contemplacion "is already a martyr to official incompetence and sloth, to buck-passing and indifference of Philippine embassy officials", wrote columnist Ricardo Puno in the Philippine Star newspaper.

He was writing after Alicia Ramos, the Philippines ambassador in Singapore, disclosed she had an urgent appointment - accompanying Singaporeans to an orchid show - in the crucial 24 hours before Mrs Contemplacion was hanged, when last-ditch efforts were needed to seek a stay of execution.

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