Unfortunately, Indonesia has been here before.
Despite international protests, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo pressed ahead with four executions over the weekend, in a macabre state-sanctioned ritual that began with a lick of paint and a declaration that it would all be over by Sunday.
One local, Fredi Budiman, and three Nigerians, Seck Osmane, Michael Titus Igweh, and Humphrey Jefferson Ejike, were tied to a white stake, blindfolded, and shot by firing squad in the early hours of Friday morning after appeals for clemency were rejected.
All four were drug dealers and put to death after an extensive campaign aimed at convincing the public – and Jakarta’s critics abroad – that drugs are a major problem and largely driven by international cartels, and this justifies capital punishment.
Another 10 prisoners were given a last minute reprieve, for reasons yet to be explained, and as the clock ticked passed Sunday realized their date with the firing squad had at least been postponed.
Talk of firing squads first rose in April after word had passed that 14 death row inmates would be executed as preparations began that included a new paint job for the penal facilities at Nusakambangan, where prisoners spend their final 72 hours.
Their deaths were met with a chorus of outrage not unlike the condemnation that followed the executions of seven foreigners, including two Australians and a Brazilian, for drug trafficking in April last year. Over 20 people have been executed under Jokowi’s leadership — more than during the entire previous 10 years under his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Of that, 13 people have been shot for drug crimes, nearly all of them foreigners.
As a result, Jokowi is fast becoming Indonesia’s most prolific user of the death penalty. He argues that drug peddlers are the scourge of Indonesia – and that narcotics kill up to 50 Indonesians a day. It’s a twisted logic, often used after the marksmen have done their job.
“Chase them, beat them, hit them. If the law permits, shoot them,” he recently said.
Last weekend, Widodo was ably backed by Deputy Attorney General for General Crimes Noor Rachmad, who said: “This was done not in order to take lives but to stop evil intentions, and the evil act of drug trafficking.”
According to Amnesty International, another 29 death sentences have been handed down for drug-related offenses, compared with 17 for murder.
Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific, said the executions were a deplorable act that violate international law. “The injustice already done cannot be reversed, but there is still hope that it won’t be compounded,” he said.
If Jokowi is right and Indonesia does have a serious drug problem — and if he is serious about cracking down on narcotics — then analysts said the president should be looking at his police and military and ask who is controlling this trade and its distribution network. In short, why is the drug trade flourishing?
Illicit drug use is not growing because of a few chancers who took-up smuggling and now face the death penalty. Nor does international law sanction capital punishment for drug trafficking; it only sanctions executions for the most heinous of crimes such as premeditated murder.
“The death penalty does not deter crime. Carrying out executions will not rid Indonesia of drugs. It is never the solution, and it will damage Indonesia’s standing in the world,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Firing squads also run against the political grain because Jokowi sold himself to the electorate as a man who would improve Indonesia’s atrocious human rights record in the run-up to the last election.
“President Widodo’s era was supposed to represent a new start for human rights in Indonesia. Sadly, he could preside over the highest number of executions in the country’s democratic era at a time when most of the world has turned its back on this cruel practice,” Benedict said.
Even Singapore, which has one of the highest executions rates per head of population in the world, revised its capital punishment laws in 2012, lifting the mandatory death penalty for drug offenders under certain conditions. Judges were also empowered with the discretion to sentence offenders to life imprisonment, which leaves open the possibility of appeal after 20 years. Importantly, it was part of a package that also broadened the use of community rehabilitation centers.
Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran spent more than 10 years behind bars in Indonesia before being shot. Father Charles Burrows, a Catholic priest who has witnessed executions in Indonesia, said it can take up to 15 minutes for some prisoners to die.
“The first time, it was seven to eight minutes, and then there were some of the other times it was 15 minutes and they still weren’t, hadn’t expired,” he told Australia’s ABC network. “And the captain has to wait with a pistol and shoot into the brain.”
He said this weekend he and four other ministers prayed and spoke with the four men who were executed.
“They were given some minutes to talk to the prisoners or console them somewhat. Then they came back and the prisoners were tied to the stakes,” he said. “And then they went, were given another few minutes. They were shot pretty quickly after that.”
“They realize they’re going to die, so you best try and die with dignity.”
This, of course, is not what the electorate had bargained for when they elected Jokowi a couple of years ago. His use of the death penalty, particularly against foreigners, is seen in some quarters as simply a means of appeasing ultra-nationalists who support this kind of punishment.
Cynics might even argue it’s a vote grab in a highly conservative society.
Jeremy Menchik, a professor at Boston University, told the Christian Science Monitor that this type of punishment remains “really popular with the public” despite a lack of evidence to support arguments that drugs are really that rampant in Indonesia.
“There’s been a moral panic for a couple of years now about drug addiction,” he said. “My sense is, he can be seen as responding to that sense of panic and urgency by implementing these draconian policies.”
It’s an interesting point and raises serious legal questions in its own right.
Human rights are an enormous issue in an era of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Cambodian government is in its crosshairs over land grabs, which Prime Minister Hun Sen insists were legal but lawyers say amounted to a crime against humanity.
One does wonder whether Indonesian authorities could one day face some kind of international legal backlash for allegations that might included the use of state sanctioned killings for political gain.
Luke Hunt can be followed on twitter @lukeanthonyhunt