By Jason Gutierrez

MANILA, March 30, 2011 (AFP) – Chinese authorities executed three Filipino drug mules on Wednesday, triggering condemnation in the Catholic Philippines and despair for relatives who witnessed their final moments.

“I just want to inform you that our three compatriots have been executed,” Vice President Jejomar Binay announced over local radio, although there being no public announcement from the Chinese government.

“It is a sad day for all of us. Until the last moment, we did everything we could to save the three.”

The three — Ramon Credo, 42, Sally Villanueva, 32, and Elizabeth Batain, 38 — were arrested separately in China in 2008 for smuggling heroin and sentenced to death.

The Philippine government had made repeated appeals in recent months to spare the lives of the trio, including by sending Binay to Beijing on a mission to have their sentences commuted to life in jail.

But the Chinese government insisted there would be no favours for the trio, and that their cases would be dealt with according to domestic laws.

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.

“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.

“She asked us to take care of her children and make sure they can finish studies,” he told DZBB radio from China.

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 DZBB.

“She tried to console us. She said, it’s okay. I have accepted my fate. I will be your angel and watch over you.”

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.

Amnesty International as well as the influential Roman Catholic church swiftly condemned the executions, and accused the Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s government of not doing enough to save the three.

“We strongly condemn the executions of the three Filipinos,” Amnesty’s Philippine representative, Aurora Parong, told AFP.

“The Philippines should have taken a stronger action, and it is now its moral duty to lead a campaign against death penalty in Asia.”

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.”

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 offences, were from poor families and had been duped by international crime syndicates into becoming drug couriers.

Aside from his visit to Beijing, Binay sent a letter this week to Chinese President Hu Jintao in a last-ditch appeal.

In December, the Philippines also skipped the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo for jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in a move Aquino said was aimed at saving condemned Filipinos in China.