The Crime of Flor Contemplacion

March 26, 1995

Flor Contemplacion was a lowly drudge in life to whom no one outside her immediate family paid attention. In death she was hailed by no less than her nation's president as heroine and martyr. For this, the swift execution of Singapore's justice system is responsible.

The Filipino maid worked in Singapore to support her four children back home, where her husband could find no work. She was one of the two million Filipinos working as domestic servants and laborers abroad whose $8 billion remittances support the Philippines economy.

Mrs. Contemplacion was arrested in 1991 for killing another maid and the child under that maid's care during an argument. She confessed, did not recant during visits from Philippines diplomats, pleaded temporary insanity on the advice of her Singapore lawyer, was found guilty, sentenced to hang, and was hanged.

Only in the month before her death did two colleagues come forward. One Filipina, working in Singapore as a prostitute and in jail at the same time, said Mrs. Contemplacion's confession was beaten out of her. Another, working as a maid, said the little boy had drowned in an epileptic fit and that the maid had been murdered in anger by his father, who framed Mrs. Contemplacion.

Singapore and the Philippines are neighbors and allies. Their armies were conducting a joint exercise at the time of the crisis. President Fidel V. Ramos and Cardinal Jaime L. Sin were among those asking Singapore to delay the hanging pending investigation. Singapore blandly announced that it had investigated the stories and found them false. The execution March 17 brought a wave of protest in the Philippines, suspension of a state visit and advice from Singapore to its nationals to avoid the Philippines.

The finality of death means there will never be a credible inquiry. Now all Filipinos and many people round the world believe -- on the strength of a few paragraphs -- that a powerful man in Singapore could frame an innocent foreign maid with impunity and did. They will never believe otherwise.

Mrs. Contemplacion is a martyr to more than the finality of capital punishment and the arbitrariness of Singapore. If she were alive in a Singapore prison today, she would not be a martyr to anything. Such is the perversity of the death penalty in the hands of an authoritarian government.

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