Indonesia: Calls to End the Death Penalty Continue

As far as legal issues go, few are as contentious as the death penalty. The United Nations announced that the drive to end this form of punishment continues to pick up steam and by the end of last year, 140 countries had abolished it officially or on a de facto basis according to human rights group Amnesty International.

But much still needs to be done, as 58 countries, including Indonesia, still apply judicial execution.

“The death penalty doesn’t deter crime, and it’s liable to claim the lives of innocent people,” Italian ambassador to Indonesia Federico Failla said during a discussion at the Italian Cultural Institute in Jakarta last week.

“Besides, any measure that is carried out with an element of vengeance shouldn’t be in the legal code,” he added.

The talk was part of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty’s campaign on the issue. The movement of 145 non-government organizations held its 11th World Day Against the Death Penalty on Oct. 10.

Italy has a special place in the history of campaigns against state executions. On “Cities for Life Day,” coming up on Nov. 30, cities around the world celebrate the first recorded successful campaign for the abolition of the death penalty. Over two centuries ago, the then state of Tuscany made a series of modern “rationalist” criminal law reforms, including doing away with executions, on Nov. 30, 1786.

Italy was again at the forefront of reforms, Failla said, when the modern state became the first country to place a moratorium on death sentences after World War II.

Failla’s follow envoy, European Union Ambassador Olaf Skoog, reinforced the importance of reform.

“The abolition of the death penalty is integral to human rights and is therefore a global issue, as it has to do with the right to live. The European Union will also maintain its stance against the death penalty by urging countries that legalize it, like Indonesia, to restrict its use,” he said. “But Indonesia is making progress by abstaining on a recent European Union resolution against the death penalty instead of voting against it. The increasing debate on the issue in Indonesia itself is also an encouraging sign.”

Director of local human rights group Imparsial, Poengky Indarti, says Indonesia still has a long way to go.

“Indonesia’s use of the death penalty is a holdover from Dutch colonial law, although the Netherlands itself abolished it in 1983. Currently there are 133 prisoners on death row, more than half of whom were found guilty of narcotics-related crimes,” she said. “The situation overseas is even more grim. Migrant Care estimates up to 420 Indonesians, more than half of them migrant workers, are on death row in countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.”

Poengky added that the death penalty’s negative effect is magnified by Indonesia’s dysfunctional, corrupt political and legal system.

“The execution of inmates on death row is often used for political reasons, particularly during an election year,” she said. “For instance, the number of people who were executed a year before the 2009 elections stood at ten, up from four or five in other years. A similar number of inmates are set to be executed this year as well.”

Justice system officials are also known to extort bribes from prisoners seeking to avoid the death penalty, she added.

“But since many are from the less affluent segments of society, their inability to pay up leads to their execution,” Poengky said.

“The Islamic parties, many of whom favor the retention of the death penalty on grounds that it is sanctioned by the Koran, are averse to executing convicted terrorists because of their belief that those men’s actions are part of an American or Jewish conspiracy,” she said. “Military personnel also manage to avoid the death penalty, among them Kopassus or other special forces men such as those who perpetrated the murders at the Cebongan Penitentiary in Yogyakarta, as well as intelligence agents like Pollycarpus and Muchdi Purwopranjono, who murdered human rights activist Munir in 2005.”

“It also takes an emotional and mental toll on inmates waiting for years on end in death row,” she said. “Life imprisonment is a better penalty, as it allows the inmates to ponder their actions.”