The death penalty once again comes under spotlight in Indonesia, and in the center of it all, is our newly-elected President Joko Widodo (Jokowi).
Having gone through such raucous ordeal to get to where he is now (and taken significant battering to his reputation in the process), the president has clearly attempted to position himself on certain nationalist issues which could set the tone of his presidency within the first few months in office. Unfortunately, he picked a wildly contentious subject of enforcing the death penalty for drug offenders to drive his message home.
The reason? Well, among others, despite the somewhat controversial nature of the decision, is the backing of millions of Indonesians from both sides of the political divide. Polls which show support for the death penalty in Indonesia generally sits at around 75%. This is something of a rarity these days1, and a political capital for the president.
This brings us to last Sunday (18/1). After months of unofficial moratorium on the death penalty (last execution was back in 2013), the president, seemingly keen to show his loyal cohorts and opposing parties alike that he could put his foot down on things that ‘matter’, decided to move forward with the execution of six drug offenders, five of whom were foreigners.
As a result, The Netherlands and Brazil (which have abolished death penalty back home) recalled their ambassadors over the execution of their nationals by the Indonesian firing squad. Australia and dozens of other countries whose citizens are among the 57 foreigners under drug-related death sentence in Indonesia might soon follow suit to reconsider their diplomatic relations with our country should the government decide to continue with their plan.
President Jokowi defended his decision (not to give pardon) by saying that the war against the drug mafia should not be half-hearted measures since drugs ruin lives. As his voter, I still believe in his good-natured spirit. But I am also pretty certain he is just playing politics in this instance. If the president is really committed to eradicate drug-related crimes, he should have started from his own backyard.
Indeed, the government already has plenty on its plate and needs to step up its game by making drug abuse policies more effective, reforming the justice system, ensuring that the law is enforced, cracking down on the drug cartels, improving drug rehabilitation centers, and the list goes on.
However, imposing the death penalty is definitely not one of them.
What deterrence effect?
Proponents of the death penalty always point out that such notorious act is a necessary undertaking as an ultimate punishment to deter drug cartels, middlemen, and abusers from expanding the vicious circle. They maintain that drug traffickers will be less likely to commit their crimes if they know they will face execution.
The thing is, by nature, many drug-related offences are committed unpremeditatedly, in a spur-of-the-moment fashion. While the masterminds of drug-trafficking often hide in plain sight, away from their dirty laundry, those who get caught by authorities are most likely just petty middlemen or drug users who are convinced that they will not be caught and held to account. That they are invincible. They cannot fathom the idea of being arrested, let alone anticipate that one form of punishment is better than the other. That will never happen to them because they are different. They are cautious and well-guarded.
Until they get caught.
Evidence from around the world has also shown that the death penalty does not have any particular deterrent effect on crime. Retentionists often argue that abolishing death penalty would only lead to higher crime rates, but studies in the USA and Canada, for instance, do not back this up.
According to Amnesty International: “In 2004 in the USA, the average murder rate for states that used the death penalty was 5.71 per 100,000 of the population as against 4.02 per 100,000 in states that did not use it. In 2003 in Canada, 27 years after the country abolished the death penalty the murder rate had fallen by 44% since 1975, when capital punishment was still enforced”.
In fact, as elucidated by an opinion on the ABC, despite having enforced the death penalty to deter drug offenders for decades now, President Jokowi himself acknowledged last December that:
Indonesia is in a state of emergency with regard to drug abuse, the president pointed out, adding that the number of drug users had reached 4.5 million, with 1.2 million of them beyond the point of rehabilitation because of the extreme natures of their cases.
In other words, after all this time, the death penalty is clearly not the solution.
To put things into perspective, the majority of countries in the world which have abolished death penalty are generally better off compared to Indonesia as far as drug offences are concerned. Global trends also point toward a declining rate of executions. So how could we be certain that the death penalty in Indonesia would serve its purpose and prove to be successful?
Well, when we are about to ‘play God’ by taking someone else’s life away, we need to be 100% certain. No excuses.
This is yet another inhuman trait concerning the death penalty.
The human rights debacle
I always thought that the notion ‘killing is wrong’ should be a universally-accepted value. A human being should not have any rights whatsoever to take away other people’s life. Therefore, it is only logical to say that the death penalty is ludicrous and unacceptable since it is basically a premeditated killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice.
The fact that a man-made legal system prone to corruption, inconsistencies, errors, and abuse of power could legally sanction the government to kill an individual is beyond me. It is an ultimate inhuman and degrading punishment; an affront to human rights.
A case in point would be Rani Andriani, the only Indonesian who was executed earlier this month for her role in a drug ring. As widely reported by news outlets, she was merely a courier, while her cousin Ola (who was the brain of the operation) received presidential pardon and got her life spared in 2013. So much for a fair sentence.
As citizens, I also believe that we all share the guilt and disgrace when the government put someone’s life to an end – especially when the person turns out to be innocent, which has happened many times in the past. We cannot just hide comfortably behind the comfort of our closed doors.
Unfortunately, people have different perceptions when it comes to human rights. Even some of the most sensible people I know do not share my view.
One of them rebutted my opposition to the death penalty by claiming that perpetrators of serious crimes which result in the death of other people (drug trafficking among them) have inadvertently been stripped of their right to life.
Personally, I consider this kind of thinking to be dangerous. It is a symptom of a culture of violence and revenge which denies the possibility of rehabilitation and reconciliation. Any system is fallible, and failures of the death penalty cannot be reversed.
The real issues at hand
While many regard President Jokowi as being tough and decisive in eradicating drug offences by executing drug traffickers, I sincerely believe that his agreeable intent is misplaced. Indonesia might be facing an ‘emergency’ situation over drug use. If the data from the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) is to be trusted2, around 40 to 50 Indonesians die every day from drugs. That is nearly 15,000 wasted lives annually.
However, relying on the death penalty as a catch-all solution to make the public safer, send a message that the government is being tough on drug abuses, and hope that there will be a deterrent effect after the fact is both inconsiderate and uninspiring. A lazy approach, even.
The causes and solutions to drug abuses in Indonesia are complex. But advocating the use of the death penalty could only provide President Jokowi with the superficial appearance of strong action being taken and the illusion that drug-related offences will be eradicated, while the real problems on the ground remain unscathed.
In other words, the death penalty only promotes simplistic responses to complex drug abuse issues. It also diverts resources and energy that could be better used to actually tackle the main problems surrounding the manufacture, possession, distribution, and sale of drugs.
What the president should focus on instead, is a comprehensive reform and strategic approaches to the drug problem. The government should provide better prevention measures through health and education, wipe out corruption in the narcotics police, reform the justice system, improve rehabilitation centers, and so forth.
That is what I call a real commitment to the drug issue.
1 According to a recent poll, three-quarters of Indonesians are unhappy with the president’s performance so far.
2 The data is based on 2011 data from the University of Indonesia which surveyed hospitals, schools, and rehabilitation centers. In contrast, the UN’s World Drug Report lists only 447 drug-related deaths in Indonesia in its latest report.