On Sunday March 18, Saudi Arabian authorities beheaded Indonesian migrant worker Zaini Misrin without providing diplomatic notice to the relevant Indonesian authorities.
The execution was carried out undeterred by repeated requests from Indonesian President Joko Widodo for clemency. Zaini was executed in spite of strong evidence suggesting he was coerced into confessing to killing his employer and that his own translator was complicit in this coercion.
There are fears that more Indonesian migrant workers may be executed in Saudi Arabia. While a large number of Indonesian citizens are on death row in Saudi Arabia, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated there are two specific cases involving Indonesian female migrant workers that have been listed as critical.
Zaini is not the first Indonesian to be beheaded in the Gulf state. In 2011, the execution of an Indonesian migrant worker prompted Indonesia to recall its ambassador and to begin a moratorium halting the placement of Indonesian migrant workers in the informal sector in Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the execution of two mentally ill Indonesian women migrant domestic workers prompted the Indonesian government to extend the moratorium to 21, mainly Middle Eastern, countries.
Despite the moratoriums, which have been widely criticized by migrant rights organizations for being a reactionary move that violates a number of human rights, thousands of Indonesians continue to be employed in Saudi Arabia as domestic workers, migrating through irregular channels and living without any of the legal and social protections that documented migrant workers enjoy.
The latest beheading sparked waves of protest within Indonesia and across the globe. Swathes of outraged activists have called the execution a blatant violation of human rights. The framing of the capital punishment as a human rights violation, however, is made difficult by the fact that none of the core international human rights treaties explicitly forbid capital punishment.
The use of the death penalty is only forbidden in an Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and this optional protocol, with only 85 state parties, has not come close to achieving universal ratification. In spite of a number of nonbinding resolutions issued by the United Nations General Assembly calling for its abolition, capital punishment continues to largely be understood as a legally permissible exception to the right to life.
The United Nations Convention Against Torture is one of the few human rights treaties that Saudi Arabia has ratified. Although the committee that implements the convention has been notably inconsistent in its stance on the death penalty, the committee in its 2016 concluding observations on the report of Saudi Arabia encouraged the state to establish a moratorium on executions and to commute all existing death sentences. With 20 Indonesian citizens currently on death row in Saudi Arabia, Jakarta has a vested interest in seeing the recommendations of the committee implemented.
Indonesia fights tirelessly to secure clemency for its citizens facing the death penalty abroad through diplomatic negotiations, legal channels, and even by paying blood money or ransoms where possible. Domestically, however, Indonesia continues to implement capital punishment, executing Indonesian and foreign citizens alike and defending its right to do so with arguments of national sovereignty.
During the 2017 Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, where Indonesia’s human rights track record was reviewed by 103 states, capital punishment was the main human rights issue that came into the spotlight with 30 individual states recommending Indonesia abolish the death penalty or place a moratorium on its use.
The Indonesian National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) contends the Indonesian government is losing the moral justification to protect its citizens on death row abroad when the state continues to carry out executions at home. The results of extensive monitoring carried out by Komnas Perempuan regarding women facing the death penalty revealed that the majority of women on death row are victims of gender-based violence and that female domestic workers are targeted by international drug smuggling and human trafficking syndicates, unknowingly made into drug mules by perpetrators who exploit the women’s layered vulnerabilities.
An important finding of the Commission shows that the death penalty and the extensive periods of time that people spend on death row in Indonesia have economic, physical, and psychological effects on the convicted person and their families that are torturous and inhumane. These findings of the Commission are in line with the statement of the Committee Against Torture that prolonged time on death row could amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Komnas Perempuan notes that currently in Indonesia there are a number of former women migrant workers who have been sentenced to death despite indications that they are victims of human trafficking. Filipino national Mary Jane Veloso and Indonesian Merry Utami, imprisoned in 2010 and 2001 respectively, are two women currently on death row in Indonesia. Both of these women are former migrant workers and they are both indicated to be victims of human trafficking whose progress through the judicial system has been markedly unjust.
The commissioner of Komnas Perempuan’s Migrant Worker Task Force, Thaufik Zulbahary, explained, “Migrant workers, especially women migrant domestic workers are one of the most vulnerable groups in society… they are prone to experiencing human rights violations at every stage of migration.” To effectively work at reducing these vulnerabilities and improving outcomes for migrant workers, international advocacy — including pushing for global ratification of the Convention on Migrant Workers — must be accompanied by grassroots initiatives aimed at improving the fulfillment of migrant workers’ human rights.
One such grass roots initiative is TKI Bijak, a program that is operating in West Java, Indonesia, disseminating information to prospective migrant workers about proper recruitment procedures and practical information regarding destination countries and human rights concerns for each respective country. Through initiatives like this, prospective migrant workers are equipped with the means to make educated decisions about their deployment and the risk of human rights violations are minimized.
On the international stage it is essential that the discourse surrounding the death penalty stops focusing on capital punishment as an issue of state sovereignty and a legitimate exception on the right to life. The various international human rights mechanisms and treaty bodies, especially the Committee Against Torture, have the responsibility to take a stronger stance in opposing the death penalty and take the lead in shifting the international discourse to focus on the right to life as the ultimate, nonderogable human right that transcends notions of sovereignty.
While the international community slowly works toward global abolition of capital punishment, states should at a minimum observe the Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty. This document, published by the Economic and Social Council in a 1984 resolution, states in the fourth and fifth points that capital punishment may be imposed only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts. The safeguard further states that capital punishment may only be imposed pursuant to a final judgement rendered by a competent court after legal process that gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial, including adequate legal assistance at all stages of the proceedings.
It is estimated that there are around 4.5 million Indonesian migrant workers currently working overseas. As a country that prides itself on endeavoring to provide the highest possible protections for its citizens abroad, Indonesia in a purely pragmatic sense has a vested interest in leading by example and looking to abolish the death penalty or at the very least commute the death sentence for victims who are indicated to be victims of human trafficking or have been denied a fair trial. The domestic cessation of the implementation of capital punishment is an important first step that will give added legitimacy to Indonesia’s attempts to seek clemency for its citizens on death row abroad.
Jack Britton is a translator, researcher, and writer currently embedded with the Indonesian National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) in Jakarta, Indonesia.