Sixteen executions are expected to soon take place in Indonesia, and most of the people are foreigners convicted of drug crimes.

Phelim Kine, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, says Indonesia’s “tragically misguided and wrongheaded” policy could see more than 40 people executed by the end of 2017.

“We are greatly concerned because the Indonesian government has made it clear that as soon as Ramadan is over, in early July, they will begin executions again,” Kine told The News Lens International.

Indonesia had a de-facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty until 2013, and human rights activists blame President Joko Widodo (often referred to as Jokowi) and his "War on Drugs" for restarting capital punishment.

“What we’ve seen since Jokowi took office in late 2014, is he has made the execution of convicted drug traffickers a signature policy issue,” Kine says. “He refers to this as ‘shock therapy’ for what he perceives as an emergency facing Indonesia.”

Diplomatic backlash or backlash to diplomacy?

Indonesia faced intense international criticism last year after it carried out 14 executions; ambassadors left Jakarta in protest and Brazil refused the credentials of an incoming Indonesian ambassador.

Nithin Coca, a freelance writer and social activist, says only in the case of Mary Jane Veloso – the Filipino woman who escaped execution at the eleventh hour last year – did international lobbying efforts make a “discernable impact.”

“I don’t think the current administration cares that much what the international perception of their policies are,” says Coca, who shares his time between the U.S. and Indonesia. “I think [international lobbying] had a reverse impact, domestically at least.”

Amid criticism, “especially from Australia,” Indonesians “became more nationalistic and more pro-death penalty than they would have had there been no international outcry,” he says.

Further, he suggests that Indonesians are “very cognizant of hypocrisy” – Indonesians are executed in other countries with worse capital punishment records each year, but “the world doesn’t care.”

“There is this idea, because they are westerners [facing execution], now all of a sudden you care. But if it is an Indonesian or someone else from a developing country, you don’t really care.”

Kine says although there is a perception that international pressure doesn’t work, the criticism last year has “stung the Indonesian government.”

“The biggest blowback, and the greatest pressure that the Jokowi administration has had, has been from close bilateral partners whose citizens have been executed despite strenuous diplomatic efforts to commute those death sentences,” he says.

“After the peak of that pressure in March-April, 2015, when that last spree of executions occurred, the government paused and went silent on this death penalty issue. It has only been in recent weeks where it has suddenly reemerged.”

Myuran Sukumaran of Australia arrives at a Denpasar courtroom in Bali

Photo Credit: REUTERS/達志影像

Australian Myuran Sukumaran was executed on April 29, 2015. He was a member of the Bali Nine, arrested for drug trafficking in Bali in 2005.

Strange dichotomy

Indonesia announced earlier this month it was ramping up efforts to provide legal aid and gain clemency for the more than 200 Indonesian nationals currently facing the death penalty abroad – most are in Malaysia. The Jakarta Post quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir as saying that 285 Indonesians facing capital punishment overseas had been spared the death penalty in the past five years.

Coca says there is a “strange dichotomy” in Indonesia: one arm of the government is fighting for leniency for Indonesians facing the death penalty offshore, while domestically the government is executing people.

In Indonesia, “oftentimes you see this where one ministry is doing one thing, and another ministry is doing something else, and they are not really talking to each other,” he says.

The result is that domestic capital punishment policy is putting the government “in a tougher position to protect its workers abroad,” Coca says.

Kine notes that the Indonesian government expends significant financial resources to prevent Indonesian nationals on death row overseas from being executed.

“There is a horrific element of hypocrisy in the Indonesian government’s embrace of the death penalty,” he says. “The Indonesian government has gone so far, in some Gulf states, to provide ‘blood money’ to the families of the victims of Indonesian citizens who have been convicted of murder in order to save those Indonesian citizens from the death penalty.”

While there is “hope” that the government will realize that “just as no Indonesian citizens should have to face the death penalty overseas, nor should anyone have to face the death penalty in Indonesia,” Kine says, human rights organizations have their “work cut out.”

“The latest announcements from the Indonesian government of a looming spree of executions indicate that the government is adamant that the death penalty will stay,” he says.

The key to change

Coca suggests local Indonesian activists could hold the key to changing the government’s policy.

“There are a lot of local civil society advocates, especially in the human rights community and those who work on Indonesia migrant worker issues abroad, who see the direct connection between how these executions can make their work protecting workers abroad more difficult,” he says. “The real possibility for change really comes from them.”

According to Coca, some local activists do have “good connections” in government – he says on the day prior Veloso being taken off the immediate execution list, local advocates met directly with President Widodo.

“If local civil society and local organizers and activists can make a strong case and get attention and tell the story, that could make a discernable change in the government’s policy,” he says. “The question is, ‘is the government going to listen to them?’”

Coca says others in the Jokowi administration may be pushing the use of capital punishment, rather than the president himself. According to Coca's local sources, the president is “either acquiescing or giving his tacit approval, but he’s not the one forcefully pushing this policy."

Kine and Coca acknowledge, however, local opposition to the death penalty is not widespread.

“There are courageous voices within Indonesia’s civil society, who speak out against the death penalty,” Kine says. “They tend to be lonely voices, at a time when, across a number of issues in Indonesia, there is a nationalist surge.”

Coca similarly says while civil society in Indonesia is “very active, brave and they are willing to speak truth to power, they “only represent a very educated niche of society.”

Indonesia's military chief Commander General Moeldoko and National Police Chief General Badrodin Haiti pose with members of the military and police after a briefing in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara
Indonesia's military chief Commander General Moeldoko (center, on left) and National Police Chief General Badrodin Haiti (right) pose with members of the military and police after a briefing in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara, May 7, 2015 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Nearly two decades after Indonesia's military was squeezed out of civilian affairs with the downfall of strongman leader Suharto, President Joko Widodo is drawing the army more closely into his wars on drugs, terrorism, and corruption. Picture taken May 7. REUTERS/Kornelis Kaha/Antara Foto

Nationalism and the 'War on Drugs'

Using the death penalty on foreign nationals involved in drug trafficking appears to be popular among the electorate and is being used by politicians riding a wave of patriotism across the archipelago.

Coca says there has been renewed nationalism in Indonesia under the Jokowi administration. He points to Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, who has been promoting an aggressive defense of Indonesia’s maritime territory.

“She’s incredibly popular,” Coca says. “She’s probably the most popular politician in the country right now.”

Pudjiastuti’s confrontational rhetoric, Coca says, is “more for PR and more for show” than a sign of effective policy. Capital punishment in the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is used similarly to portray an “image of power.”

“The executions are not going to help actually stop the drug problem; they are really a show of force to demonstrate the government is doing something,” he says.

Polls and surveys show a large number of Indonesians favor the death penalty, Kine says.

“You could debate why that is the case, but the fact is that reflex pursuit of some kind of ‘justice’ through the death penalty is not based on the facts, science and international law,” he says.

Twelve of the 14 drug offenders last executed in Indonesia were foreigners. This February, Widodo said drug abuse “tops the list” of Indonesia’s major problems.

Coca says the statement was “ridiculous,” considering the country has challenges across electricity and infrastructure, education and literacy, and the environment, among others.

“To say 'it is drugs' is diverting the attention from the real problems and focusing on something that is easier for people to understand,” Coca says, adding that it is concerning to see the military playing a bigger role in the so-called war.

He says that Indonesia appears to be “following the same dangerous path” as the failed drug policy in the U.S. – “mass incarceration and very police- and military-heavy.”

“The world has come to the conclusion that this is not working. Indonesia should not have to follow the same mistakes.”

Kine says while “there is absolutely no proven deterrent effect for the death penalty,” Widodo appears confident executing large numbers of traffickers will make an impact on illegal drug use and trafficking in Indonesia.

“He seems to believe that executing drug traffickers is going to make a difference in the drug problem in Indonesia, despite the fact there is no evidence and in fact scholarship indicates that it will do nothing,” Kine says.

Kine also says Indonesia’s policy breaches international law – the death penalty is reserved for the most serious crimes that are lethal in nature.

“The United Nations has made clear that drug trafficking just doesn’t meet that criteria,” he says.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole