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Indonesia’s death penalty crisis

Human Rights

Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, was expected to take a stand for human rights, not act against them. NHD-INFO under a Creative Commons Licence

What a difference a few months make. Last year, during the election season, Indonesian politicians from several parties went to Kota Baru, Malaysia, to intervene in the case of a trafficked, underage, mentally ill Indonesian, Wilfreda, who was facing the death penalty in a Malaysian court.

Today, it is the world that is campaigning against Indonesia’s new administration, led by President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and the use of the death penalty against foreign citizens in the fight against drug trafficking.

The crisis, which has been dominating media coverage in Southeast Asia and Australia, clearly demonstrates the world’s double standards when it comes to the death penalty, proving how certain victims are more worthy of saving than others. The only solution: a global push to end the use of this prejudiced, ineffective state tool.

Injustice wins

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a whole host of civil-society organizations believe that the death penalty is discriminatory, prone to misuse by skewed justice systems and does nothing to deter crime.

According to Amnesty, you are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to a racial, ethnic or religious minority, because of discrimination in the justice system. Moreover, poor and marginalized groups have less access to the legal resources needed to defend themselves.

‘We oppose the death penalty as a matter of principle,’ said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia Researcher with HRW. ‘The right to live is a human right, and no-one has the right to take a life from anyone else, including the state.’ HRW also strongly believes the death penalty will do nothing to prevent or stop drugs from entering countries like Indonesia.

The use of the death penalty against foreign citizens – who often face even greater boundaries to justice than locals – is a little-discussed, important subset of the problem. Imagine being abroad in a country with a completely foreign legal system and language, and having to defend yourself, often without any support. You are suddenly in the minority and the vulnerabilities you’re already faced with are multiplied by the existence of the death penalty.

That being said, this does not necessarily apply to Australians like Myuran Sukumaran or Andrew Chan, or other citizens of Western countries who, thankfully, receive ample support from their home country’s government.

It does, however, apply to Indonesians abroad, and there are many of them. Migrant Care, an Indonesian NGO that fights for the rights of Indonesian migrant workers, estimates that an astounding 360 Indonesian citizens are facing the death penalty in countries around the world right now.

‘In Saudi Arabia there are 48 [on death row], in Qatar 1, in China 22 and in Malaysia 288,’ said Anis Hidayah, Migrant Care’s Executive Director.

This is a major problem. Let’s look at Malaysia – a country that, despite its middle-income status, is ranked near the bottom in indexes on human trafficking and freedom of press, and which recently jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on trumped-up charges of sodomy, in what was a politically motivated trial.

Widodo's insistence on using the death penalty seems more of an effort to exert national power in the face of foreign countries

There are six Malaysians on Death Row in Indonesia, and Malaysia – which also heavily punishes drug traffickers – supports Indonesia’s use of the death penalty. I imagine that one reason for this is that this will give them more leeway to use the death penalty freely against those 288 imprisoned Indonesians.

You have probably not heard about the efforts the Indonesian government made to save Wilfrida, or Satinah. The latter is an Indonesian worker who killed her Saudi Arabian employer for allegedly abusing her, and who was sentenced to death in the Middle Eastern country.

They were cases just as dramatic of those of the Bali Nine, but, as they featured Indonesian citizens, they did not get much coverage in the global press. In fact, this was part of a multiyear effort by civil society to force the government to better care for its 6.5-million-plus migrant-worker population.

‘After the beheading of maid Ruyati binti Sapubi [in Saudi Arabia] in June 2011, the Indonesian government formed task forces to protect Indonesian migrant workers facing the death penalty. Before 2011, the Indonesian government did not provide comprehensive legal aid,’ said Hidayah.

The fear is that the recent and pending executions may damage the years of work organizations have put in to protect migrants from Death Row.

‘The executions would seriously undermine Indonesia’s credibility to speak out about human rights at the regional and global level, including saving the lives of Indonesians on Death Row elsewhere,’ said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia Research Director.

An outdated tool

Something missing in the mainstream media is that Indonesia is no China, nor is it even a United States. It rarely uses the death penalty. After the fall of President Suharto in 1998, the end of a three-decade-era that saw government-sponsored killings, purges and even genocidal rampages, the country took a big step away from state-led executions, with none taking place between 2008 and 2012.

It was a positive step in the right direction for a country that was surprising many with its vibrant democracy, and a way to restore civil peace throughout most (but not all) of the country.

Moreover, Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s current president, was expected to be different. He is the first president in Indonesia’s history not connected to the old power order. A former furniture salesman, he had risen to power by fighting corruption and ‘getting things done’.

At the same time, in his former position as governor of Jakarta, he had never had to face issues of human rights, justice or national security.

Civic society was hopeful that his human rights record would be strong (or, at least, better than his opponent’s, Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto crony who allegedly took part in the army massacres in Timor Leste). Thus, to nearly everyone, his strong, pro-death penalty position has come out of nowhere.

To understand why Indonesia is insisting on using the death penalty, we need to examine another factor that is often prevalent in emerging democracies: nationalism. President Jokowi wants to build a stronger, more prosperous and globally more important Indonesia, and is following the path of his political party’s founder, President Sukarno, a leader of the non-aligned movement.

Thus, his insistence on using the death penalty seems more of an effort to exert national power in the face of foreign countries, than a genuine belief that it will help the country’s fight against drug trafficking.

According to Amnesty, you are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to a racial, ethnic or religious minority

The international pressure is just pushing him further into a corner. Now his choices are – grant clemency and make Indonesia look weak, or execute and make Indonesia look strong. No wonder he is pushing forward.

Remember Wilfrida? Her case was not in vain – pressure from Indonesia, along with legal assistance, forced a Malaysian court to throw out her case. It was a victory for human rights advocated everywhere.

Unfortunately, she was just one of hundreds of Indonesians on Death Row abroad. You can bet that there will be another situation like Wilfrida’s soon, when Indonesia, perhaps led by President Jokowi, will want to pressure a foreign country to save an Indonesian from execution.

But after Jokowi’s use of executions against drug traffickers, will anyone listen? The more people Indonesia executes, the more difficult it will be to take action to protect workers abroad from Death Row.

Let’s give Indonesia another option. Ask them to not execute Sukumaran, Chan and any other drug traffickers, and, in return, the global community will pledge to fight for the 360 Indonesians on Death Row abroad.

This would be an out for President Jokowi. He can preserve his country’s integrity and show its strength, all the while being able to save its citizens abroad. And, for the world, it would point to a big step in the right direction, towards a world free of the injustice of the death penalty.

Nithin Coca is a freelance writer focusing on human rights and environmental issues in Asia. Find him on Twitter @excinit.


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