Twelve months following the Indonesian government’s execution of eight people, some of whom were foreign citizens, all on charges of drug smuggling, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited Germany in April, where Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced her opposition to his country’s continued use of capital punishment, especially for drug-related crimes.
The president, by way of a justification, responded: “There are between 30 and 50 people in Indonesia dying per day because of drugs,” quoting figures questioned by many health experts. But it was left to Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo to put the matter more bluntly when he stated: “We are fighting a war against horrible drug crimes that threaten our nation’s survival… I would like to say that an execution is not a pleasant thing. It is not a fun job. But we must do it in order to save the nation from the danger of drugs.”
There can be little doubt from these words that the Indonesian government equates both the death penalty and the executions of its ‘enemies’ in the war on drugs as a necessity for national security. In doing so, it is hardly original. As far back as 1764, the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria wrote in his famed essay, “Of Crimes and Punishments,” that the death penalty is a “war of the whole nation against a citizen whose destruction they consider necessary.” Capital punishment is, as we are informed by some, a “necessary evil” – one of the most vulgar terms in the political vocabulary.
In doing do, however, the Indonesian government rests its case upon a false premise. Its continued, or rather increased, use of the death penalty has little to do with national survival and more to do with quotidian politics; it is not forced to execute but simply chooses to do so, however much it may say otherwise. (This is not an original point, as those with knowledge of Indonesian politics are aware, but just as a lie told repeatedly becomes the truth, so too does a truth not repeated become effaced.)
But first, it is worth describing the actual process that takes place. Since 1964, Indonesia’s mechanism of death has changed only slightly. Months before the execution is to take place, the condemned is transported to Nusa Kambangan island, a former Dutch prison colony, and today the site of maximum security prisons, nicknamed Indonesia’s Alcatraz. They will be given 72 hours’ notice before the execution takes place, and, at some point around midnight, the condemned is woken and walked by guards, along with either a priest or cleric, to a grassy area to stand in front of a firing squad composed of 12 riflemen from a paramilitary force called the Mobile Brigade Corps. A white shirt is placed on the condemned, who is then blindfolded and asked whether he would prefer enjoy the last few seconds of life standing, sitting, or kneeling. A doctor pens an X on the white shirt, above the convict’s heart. Then, after a commander’s yell, 12 shots are fired from a distance of five to ten meters. Only three shots, however, are live; nine of the soldiers will be supplied with blanks, so no one knows who took another person’s life. If more than one execution is to take place, they are conducted simultaneously.
One is reminded of Albert Camus’ following passage from “Reflections on the Guillotine”:
What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months.
In a few months’ time – no date has yet been set – this fate awaits another 15 inmates who will be executed by the Indonesian government: five Indonesian nationals, four Chinese, one Pakistani, two Nigerians, two Senegalese, and one Zimbabwean. Some publications have noted, rather cynically, that “there is unlikely to be the same kind of uproar… [for] the next round of executions” compared to last year’s, as Time magazine put it. The reason: because 12 of the condemned are from countries that implement the death penalty and the remaining three are from “poor African countries.” This prediction, most probably quite accurate, does not expect Australia or other nations to raise such an opposition, as they last year, when it is not their own citizens being killed – a rather shameful show of empathy and internationalism.
In any case, there is unlikely to be any wavering on the part of the Indonesian authorities. Chief Security Minister Luhut Pandjaitan told local media recently: “The executions can take place any time, but there will not be a ‘soap opera’ about it this time.” And the country’s attorney general made it clear that the executions are intended to show drug offenders “we are really at war with drugs.”
It is believed that between 50 to 70 percent of prisoners in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand are in jail for drug-related crimes. For Indonesia this is accepted to be at 70 percent; most are low-level drug users.
Last year, the country’s National Narcotics Agency estimated that almost four million Indonesians had ever used drugs – 1.6 million who have “ever tried” drugs, 1.4 million “regular” users, and 943,000 “addicts.” With 250 million citizens, that makes just 0.004 percent of the population drug addicts.
To be side-tracked slightly, it was recently reported that Indonesia is set to have the world’s highest rate of smokers in the coming years. Currently, 67 percent of all males above 15 years old smoke cigarettes, and tobacco related illnesses are thought to account for upwards of 200,000 deaths per year. (That works out at 547 deaths every day, making the 50 per day because of drugs seem paltry.) But do we hear the government calling for the CEOs of tobacco firms to be executed? No. Perhaps because tobacco firms are the third-highest payer of tax in Indonesia, an estimated $13 billion each year, and are key funders of presidential candidates when elections come around.
The effects of Indonesia’s “war on drugs” are becoming apparent. The number of people with HIV/AIDS is rising sharply, with many putting this down to drug users being forced into sharing needles – being found with a needle could lead to being sent to prison. “It’s creating difficulty for the outreach worker to give away clean needles and also to collect used needles … and it has put us in danger of an HIV epidemic,” Suhendro Sugiharto, an outreach worker with the Indonesian Drug Users Network, recently told Al Jazeera. (The same article warned that Indonesia is even considering “force-feeding drug dealers their own narcotics until they die”.)
Many drug workers in Indonesia are in agreement that rehabilitation and treatment, not arrest and execution, are what’s needed to prevent drug use continuing to rise. One might add into this mixture solutions to the problems that lead many people to take drugs – poverty, unemployment, poor health care, etc.
One might be also justified in arguing that if the world’s tenth largest economy is incapable of finding the finances and resources to help treat 0.004 percent of its population, instead of locking them up and shooting them dead, this must surely raise questions about its capabilities of sitting on the UN Security Council, as it aspires to do in 2019, or its other international ambitions.
It should go without saying that an “eye for an eye,” albeit in a polity sense, is a futile deterrence. “There is no evidence that the death penalty deters any crime,” the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović has stated. What’s more, executions for drug-related crimes are in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by Indonesia in 2006, which rules, in Article 6, that capital punishment can only be used for the “most serious crimes,” excluding crimes not resulting in the victim’s death, and specifically naming executions for drug-related crimes “unlawful killings.”
In any case, as Andreas Harsono, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, stated: “It is easier for [Jokowi] to execute… drug traffickers — who are basically weak people, they’re not drug barons — rather than dealing with legal reform”. More telling, however, was Harsono’s following comment. Not only is Jokowi “politically the weakest post-Suharto president,” he is also “not in control of his own party.”
This is certainly not a unique opinion. Tim Lindsey, director of the Center for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne, stated that it is “hard to avoid the conclusion that the [Jokowi] administration’s approach to drugs and death is driven more by populism than principle.”
When Jokowi was elected president in 2014, he pitched himself to the electorate as a champion of human rights, a “modest” alternative to his competitor, Prabowo Subianto, a former general accused of atrocities in Timor-Leste and who promised to rule Indonesia with an iron-fist. Jokowi’s iconography as a political outsider is, however, one of his major weaknesses. As the New Yorker deftly put it: “As an outsider to both Jakarta and the political elite, [Jokowi] finds it hard to wheel or deal his way out of the gridlock that the opposition gleefully drives him into.” Accusations are also made that his own party, the PDI-P, is not fully behind him, including former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the party’s chairman.
The New Yorker added: Jokowi “has needed to reassert his credibility with Indonesian voters, to show that he’s more than just Megawati’s puppet, that he’s still fighting for the interests of ordinary Indonesians. But because he can’t get much done in the legislature, he has chosen quick wins that can be had solely through executive power. Executing foreign drug dealers is one of those.”
If true, Jokowi wouldn’t be the first politician to use executions for political gain – though precedent does little to excuse it. It should also raise questions about whether local and international media exaggerated his human rights credentials before and after the election.
In recent months, however, Jokowi’s position has been boosted as the country’s second-largest party, Golkar, announced it would lend support to the president’s minority ruling coalition, following a power struggle within the party that saw the former parliament speaker, Setya Novanto, elected as its new chief. This is expected to make it easier for Jokowi to pass legislation through the legislature.
Although, with the ferocity that the government has approached the upcoming executions, it appears such political shifts have done little to change the president’s mind. Populism must still trump idealism, and executions certainly appear popular with the Indonesian majority. The last opinion poll on this issue, as far as I am aware, was conducted in 2006 and 76 percent of Indonesians asked said they supported the execution of drug traffickers, and slightly less for murderers. And, to give the people what they want, Jokowi recently added the rape of children to the list of crimes carrying the death penalty – and, again, experts stated this would do little in the way of deterrence.
It seems beyond doubt that at some point in the coming months, in the small hours of the morning, 15 people will lose their lives because of a lie. There is no ‘necessity’ to execute people to save Indonesia from drugs; it is a political decision and should be admitted as such. To quote British politician William Pitt the Younger: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants.”
David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.