Indonesia’s Death Penalty Hypocrisy

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Indonesia’s Death Penalty Hypocrisy

Jokowi’s hardline policy on executions may be imperiling the fight to save hundreds of Indonesian migrants on death row.

Indonesia’s Death Penalty Hypocrisy
Credit: REUTERS/Beawiharta

What a difference a few months make. Last year, thousands of Indonesians collected coins in a last-minute attempt to save a migrant worker, Satinah, from imminent execution while on death row in Saudi Arabia. The campaign galvanized the country, led to a trending hashtag #savesatinah, and forced then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to intervene and pay the remainder of the blood money to get Satinah taken off death row.

Today, it is the world that is campaigning against Indonesia’s new administration, led by President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, and its use of the death penalty against foreign citizens in its fight against drug trafficking. Even more worrisome, the government’s insistence on using the death penalty may be imperiling the ongoing fight to save the lives of hundreds of other Indonesians like Satinah, still on death row all around the world.

A Vulnerable Population

Satinah was one of what Migrant Care, an Indonesian NGO that raised awareness of her case and fights for the rights of Indonesian migrant workers around the world, estimates are an astounding 360 Indonesian citizens facing the death penalty in countries around the world right now.

“In Saudi Arabia there are 48 [on death row], in Qatar one, in China 22 and in Malaysia 288,” said Anis Hidayah, executive director of Migrant Care. “Right now, eighteen of them are awaiting execution. Four in Malaysia, five in Saudi Arabia and nine in China.”

Indonesia’s migrant workers form one of the world’s largest foreign worker populations, numbering, according to Migrant Care, 6.5 million, and find themselves primarily in countries like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Qatar, that have terrible human rights records and justice systems that do not provide fair trials to migrants. Reports by international NGOs including Amnesty International and HRW in the past years demonstrate the peril that many Indonesian migrant workers face. Sexual exploitation, torture, and even modern slavery are not uncommon.

Just last year, the country was galvanized by the story of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, a domestic worker from Central Java who was tortured for eight months in Hong Kong, considered a “safe” country, and then sent home without receiving any pay.

The reasons that the workers are on death row abroad are varied – and rarely, if ever, proven in a fair court. Some workers who face abuse end up killing their employers. Satinah’s supporters claim that this is what happened in her case, in 2011. Because she did not have access to a fair trial, there was no way of ascertaining the true reason for her actions, and she was sentenced to death without access to impartial legal assistance.

The actions of the Indonesian government in the past – calls for leniency, willingness to pay blood money, politicians making personal interventions to foreign governments, and even threats of diplomatic revenge, are not too dissimilar to the actions taken in recent weeks by Australia, Brazil, and the Netherlands on behalf of their citizens who are facing the firing squad in Indonesia.

“Indonesia usually spends a lot of energy, money and effort to save any Indonesian citizens on death row abroad,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), adding that he was shocked no one told Jokowi about the potential consequences of using the death penalty before December’s executions.

Losing Credibility 

During last year’s election, Jokowi performed well among Indonesia’s migrant workers, winning more than 53 percent of the overseas vote. His strong migrant worker policy was the main reason for this, as he pledged to review licenses for trafficking agencies, increase access to legal aid for migrant workers, and reform bilateral agreements to provide for better worker protections. During his campaign, he even joined in calling for Satinah’s release.

In fact, organizations like Migrant Care had been fighting to improve the positions of migrant workers for years and were optimistic that a Jokowi administration would prioritize migrant issues.

“After the beheading of Ruyati [in Saudi Arabia] in June of 2011, the Indonesian government formed task forces on the protection of Indonesian migrant workers facing death penalty. Before 2011, Indonesian government did not provide comprehensive legal aid,” said Hidayah.

All that hard work may not be undone by an administration that seems to be unaware of the implications of using the death penalty now. Hidayah is already seeing challenges.

“After the executions in Indonesia, there is now a diplomacy barrier for the Indonesian government to work to release Indonesian migrant workers on death row abroad,” said Hidayah. “And for us, now it is much more difficult to pressure the Indonesian government, and other countries.”


It is likely, with hundreds of citizens on death row abroad, that in 2015, there will be another situation like Satinah’s where the country will try to apply international pressure to save an Indonesian from execution. This time, however, Indonesia may find that it has fewer friends prepared to stand with it. Already, the use of the death penalty last month has hurt its relations with Brazil, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Malawi, and Vietnam. If plans move forward with the next round of executions, which includes citizens from France and Australia, despite pleas from clemency from civil society groups, foreign leaders, and human rights activists, it is almost certain cries of hypocrisy will be loud in the future.

Jokowi was elected to bring change to Indonesia, and enjoyed the support of many groups, including Migrant Care, who are opposed to his use of the death penalty. For them, the relationship is clear. If more foreign citizens are executed for drug-related crimes, then it will become even more difficult for them to take action to protect Indonesian workers abroad.

However, both Migrant Care and Human Rights Watch believe that it is not too late for the president to change. In doing so, he can perhaps recapture some of the optimism and idealism that was behind his rapid rise to power.

“President Widodo has an opportunity to demonstrate wise leadership by recognizing the well-documented failure of the death penalty as a crime deterrent and joining the growing number of countries that have abolished capital punishment,” said Phelim Kine, Asia Deputy Director for HRW. Otherwise, it will not just be the Bali Nine who will suffer, but many Indonesians as well.

Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.