BEIJING?China has agreed to postpone the executions of three Filipinos convicted of drug trafficking, Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay said Friday night.
In an unprecedented diplomatic triumph, the high-level Philippine delegation led by Binay secured for the three Filipinos a postponement of their scheduled executions by lethal injection on Monday and Tuesday, according to a joint statement issued by the governments of the Philippines and China.
Binay read out the joint statement hours after arriving in Beijing to make a last-ditch appeal for clemency for the Filipinos.
Binay said the Chinese side informed Philippine officials of the decision of the Chinese Supreme People?s Court to postpone the executions ?within the scope of Chinese law.? He did not elaborate.
?The Chinese side briefed the Vice President on the final verdict of the Supreme People?s Court on the three (3) Filipinos sentenced to death for drug trafficking and the decision of the SPC to postpone the execution within the scope of Chinese law,? the statement said.
Binay had carried a letter from President Aquino to China?s President Hu Jintao and separately appealed to the president of the Chinese supreme court and the government?s most senior foreign affairs official for a stay in the cases that have drawn glaring media coverage in the Philippines.
Ramon Credo, 42, and Sally Villanueva, 32, were scheduled for execution on Monday in the southern city of Xiamen, while Elizabeth Batain, 38, was to be put to death on Tuesday in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong.
They were arrested separately in 2008 for smuggling 4,000 to 6,800 grams of heroin. They were convicted and sentenced in 2009.
Going ahead with the executions would have likely set back the Philippines? efforts to build closer relations with China, a regional and economic power. Mr. Aquino has said the issue would test China?s promise of closer bilateral ties.
In Manila, presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said Mr. Aquino?s letter to the Chinese president contained an appeal for a reprieve.
?We do not mean to say that we are condoning the acts of the three but yet we are appealing for a reprieve for humanitarian reasons. We remain steadfast in our hopes that the trip of the Vice President will be successful,? Valte said before Binay?s meeting with the Chinese officials.
Hours before the announcement of the reprieve, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said the matter was an independent criminal case and China hoped that the Philippines would keep in mind ?the overall interest of bilateral relations.?
Relatives of the three condemned Filipinos are to depart today for China, officials said.
The Philippine government claims that the two women and one man?including a 32-year-old mother of two and a 42-year-old father of five?were paid to take packages to China that they thought were legal cargo such as office supplies but which actually contained hidden heroin.
The Chinese government said the three were duly convicted under a rigorous judicial process.
Earlier Friday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila had said the president of the Supreme People?s Court did not have the authority to overturn the death penalty or stay the executions.
Ethan Sun, deputy chief of political section and spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy, had also said Binay?s trip to Beijing was unlikely to change the situation.
?Like we said in our statement, it is the final verdict,? Sun said, apparently not anticipating the last-minute decision announced in Beijing.
Sun had said China?s highest court, much like that of the Philippines, was a collegial body, and its decision to uphold the death sentence on the three Filipinos was ?not personal.?
?It?s a group decision. Like here, the chief justice cannot just overturn the decision of the group. He cannot say ?I can overrule the ruling?,? he said.
?As far as the Chinese side is concerned, we have done what we could. We reviewed the case in a very serious manner,? Sun said in an earlier press briefing in Manila.
Two other Filipinos, who were arrested with 2 kilograms of illegal drugs, were given two-year reprieves.
Warning to Filipinos
Sun said the large amount of illegal drugs found on the Filipinos could partly explain the imposition of the death penalty on them, noting that other foreign nationals executed in China had been carrying amounts less than 2 kilograms.
?These cases should be a warning to Filipinos. When people ask you to carry something. It?s really clear something must be bad,? he said.
Since 2006, more than 200 Filipinos have faced drug cases in China. These three would be the first Filipinos to be executed in China for drug trafficking.
Prayers make difference
Before his departure on Friday, Binay said he was not aware whether the officials he was to meet had the authority to commute the death penalty.
?But as a lawyer, I know that in almost all countries, in circumstances like this, there?s someone that one can turn to [in order] to make a last appeal,? he said.
What is clear is that prayers really could make a difference, he said.
?I carry with me the prayers of the Filipino people that clemency could be granted on humanitarian grounds,? Binay said before boarding his Philippine Airlines flight at 7 a.m. Friday.
Binay thanked the Chinese government for allowing the Philippines to make its appeal. Beijing initially denied the Philippine request to send an emissary to ask for clemency on behalf of the convicted Filipinos.
?I?m optimistic a good thing will happen,? said Binay, who is expected back in Manila late Saturday night.
Victims of syndicates
The Vice President stressed that the Philippines does not condone drug trafficking but believes the condemned Filipinos were ?victims of international drug syndicates.?
Binay said he did not know if he would have an opportunity to meet the three convicts during his visit.
With Binay on the trip is Esteban Conejos, the foreign affairs undersecretary for migrant workers? affairs.
Conejos said that on Mr. Aquino?s orders, more family members of the convicted Filipinos were allowed to join their trip to China to be with their kin during the scheduled execution.
?Probably about 10 of them coming from three families will fly on Saturday,? he said.
Binay?s trip comes after the Philippines made several moves in recent months to win a commutation of the sentences.
Mr. Aquino did not send a representative to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December honoring a jailed Chinese dissident, and two weeks ago, the Philippines deported to Beijing 14 Taiwanese facing fraud charges in China despite protests from Taipei.