Mixed Messages on the Death Penalty in Indonesia’s Drug War

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Indonesia has executed 18 people for drug-related offences since President Joko Widodo entered office in 2014

Indonesia has executed 18 people for drug-related offences since President Joko Widodo entered office in 2014 (Source: Wikimedia).

Indonesian authorities are sending mixed messages on the death penalty. The country abstained on a UN resolution for its abolition, and the president hinted at ending it, but some senior political figures are calling for the increased execution of drug offenders.

On December 19, 2016, Indonesia was one of 31 countries that abstained from voting on a UN resolution that called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, the Jakarta Post reports. The UN has voted on a resolution on abolishing the death penalty every two years since 2008. Indonesia has abstained on every such resolution since 2012; prior to this, it had consistently voted against the measures.

Human rights advocates, including the Human Rights Working Group, praised the government’s abstention, as Indonesia has built a reputation as a prolific executioner of non-violent drug offenders under President Joko Widodo.

Between 2010 and 2014, despite numerous people being sentenced to death in Indonesia, no executions took place. This changed after Widodo entered office in October 2014, since which 18 people have been executed - all for drug trafficking.

Many of those executed were foreigners whose respective governments engaged in futile diplomatic efforts to reduce their citizens’ sentences. At least two death row inmates, including one who was executed last year, accused law enforcement of torture during their interrogation.

Despite Widodo’s renewal of the death penalty, he recently hinted at potential reform. In an interview with ABC News in November 2016, the president said, "We are very open to options. I don't know when but we want to move towards that direction [of abolishing capital punishment]."

While Widodo’s remarks suggest that human rights progress may be on the horizon for Indonesia, statements from other authorities paint a far darker picture of the future of the country’s drug policy.

Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo stated in early December that executions were planned “in the near future”, and that the state would be prioritising people convicted of drug-related crimes.

In December, Budi Waseso - chief of the country’s National Narcotics Agency (BNN) - told members of a new regional counter-narcotic taskforce, “Don't hesitate to shoot drug traffickers, drug dealers and drug users. Anyone involved in drug trafficking should be punished harshly, including traitors in the BNN body".

With echoes of President Rodrigo Duterte’s calls for the slaughter of alleged drug offenders in the Philippines, Waseso’s remarks suggest that a striking intensification of the Indonesian approach to drug policy may occur.

Indonesian NGOs have repeatedly urged the government to officially end the death penalty, pointing out the lack of evidence for its supposed deterrent effect, and arguing that it contributes to societal harms.

Ardhany Suryadarma, Policy Manager for the EU-funded project, Asia Action on Harm Reduction, proclaimed: “These executions only exacerbate the stigmatisation of people who use drugs, driving them underground, and away from [harm reduction interventions, which] … keep individuals safer and curb the HIV epidemic.”

The country has, seemingly, reached a crossroads, and the next step that it takes in regard to the death penalty will clarify its place in a region that is increasingly divided on the matter.

For example, Malaysia seems to have introduced a secret moratorium on capital punishment for drug-related offences.

Conversely, President Duterte’s state-mandated violence against people allegedly involved with drugs has left at least 6,000 people dead in the Philippines since July 2016. Despite international condemnation, his government advocates the continuation of his lethal campaign.

There are clearly conflicting ideologies between different authorities in Indonesia, and it is unclear which path the government will take. The country is currently at a crossroads: will Widodo stay true to his word and move towards adherence to the UN resolution? Will Indonesia return to its traditional approach of state-mandated executions? Or will it begin implementing extrajudicial killings as seen in the Philippines?

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