Indonesia’s new appetite for execution

From the sky, Kerobokan jail looks like a vast, sprawling complex – complete with a tennis court, a church and a mosque. Inside this notorious Bali prison are convicts found guilty of drug trafficking and facing imminent execution by a 12-man firing squad.

8 February 2015 Last updated at 22:00
By Karishma Vaswani BBC Indonesia editor

Among them are 57-year-old British national Lindsay Sandiford and two Australians – part of the infamous “Bali Nine” drug smuggling ring – Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Chan and Sukumaran have had their clemency appeals rejected by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. The attorney general’s office says they will be in the next group of prisoners to be put to death, but it is not clear when.

Last month, after a four-year hiatus, Indonesia executed convicts from Malawi, Nigeria, Vietnam, Brazil and the Netherlands, as well as one from Indonesia.

The execution spree appears to be driven by Mr Widodo. He’s only been in the job for just over 100 days – but he has decided that a war on drugs is a major priority for his administration. He has surprised many of his supporters and human rights observers with his tough stance.

“Indonesia is on the wrong side of history with this policy,” says Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta.

“A country’s attitude to human rights is determined by its attitude to the death penalty, and this stance is sending the wrong message to the world about Indonesia’s priorities – especially since Indonesia has so many of its own citizens on death row in countries like Saudi Arabia.

“How can it possibly campaign for their release while it executes people at home?”

But Indonesia says there will be no compromises – and that this policy is here to stay.

The country’s new appetite for executions has raised concerns that convicts like Sandiford, who was found guilty in 2013 for trafficking 4.8kg of cocaine to Bali, are unlikely to have their appeals granted.

Matius Arif, a priest in Bali, has met regularly with Sandiford and says she’s struggling to come to terms with her fate.

“It’s very hard for her,” he said. “I can see it and I can feel it. The situation is especially hard when you’re in a foreign country, it’s not easy for her. She needs a lot of support, and a lot of help on the legal, spiritual and emotional terms.”

But Indonesia says its laws are not ambiguous – anyone caught bringing drugs into the country will face the death penalty.

Indonesia is not the only country in South East Asia to use capital punishment for drug trafficking. Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam do too – and often with alarming regularity.

Vietnam: Giang Nguyen, BBC Vietnamese

It is thought there are 673 people on death row in Vietnam, most of them for drug trafficking. However, it’s very difficult to verify the exact number of people executed each year for bringing drugs into the country, as the use of the death penalty in Vietnam is classified as a state secret.

In January, eight Vietnamese citizens were given the death sentence for smuggling about 200kg of heroin into the country.

Mass trials for drug traffickers have been held in the yard of a detention centre rather than a courtroom, and have often been used as a deterrence and even an educational measure by the state, despite protests from foreign-based human rights groups.

China: Yuwen Wu, BBC Chinese

China takes drug trafficking very seriously and metes out severe punishment for such offenses. According to the criminal code, anybody involved with making, selling, transporting and smuggling more than 2kg of opium or 50mg of heroin or methamphetamine can be given a sentence ranging from 15 years in prison to death.

These laws apply to foreign nationals as well as Chinese citizens. In recent years, China has executed foreign nationals on drug offences from countries including Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea and the UK, despite calls for clemency from officials or NGOs representing these countries.

Countries like Indonesia often provoke international outrage with their decision to execute foreign nationals for drugs. Last month, the Brazilian and Dutch ambassadors to Indonesia were recalled to their home countries because of the executions of their nationals.

But Indonesia insists that this is the only way to deal with rising addiction rates.

The government says every day at least 40 Indonesians die because of drug overdoses. While these figures are hard to verify, it is true that the country has battled with a rising substance abuse problem, especially amongst its youth.

‘Life was a mess’
At a rehab centre outside Jakarta, young men in their twenties and thirties describe how they have been taking street-level heroin and crack for most of their lives.

“My life turned into a mess,” 30-year-old Pramudya said. “I had no friends. They all stopped talking to me. I just thought about how to steal from them so I could buy drugs. I lost everything.”

Pramudya does not blame the traffickers for what happened to him but believes they should be executed, to send a strong message.

“From my point of view Indonesian law is very weak,” he said. “So I think this is the time to make it serious for drug traffickers and drug dealers. It will never stop drugs, but maybe it will give awareness to the young generation – don’t play with it. But it will never make Indonesia totally clean from drugs. “

Anti-death-penalty campaigners agree.

They say the people that end up being executed for trafficking are invariably mules or insignificant players – not the actual kingpins themselves.

Human rights activists say cracking down on the drug trade in South East Asia has to involve a consistent and concerted effort to topple those at the top rather than those carrying out orders.

But it is an uphill battle. The majority of Indonesians surveyed approve of the death penalty – especially for drug traffickers. A change of heart is hard to imagine.