Propping up Jokowi: Do drug dealers deserve death?

Photo: Republic of Korea/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Claire Heffron

In Indonesia, drug trafficking is treated more harshly than murder. The government has recorded that out of the entire 152 convicts presently awaiting execution, fifty-eight are drug offenders.

Indonesians have been sold the death penalty as the answer to a range of problems, from drugs crime, to corruption and sexual abuse. From the top of society down it seems Indonesians believe that drug dealing is equivalent to mass murder and terrorism (which are both also punishable by death.)

With conflicting ideas between Jakarta’s judges and prosecutors, and little regard for pressure from the international community, this commitment to the most severe of punishments is unlikely to end soon.

International issues

This week, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key was in Indonesia to talk business, trade and terrorism at his first meeting with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. He said they would discuss a wide range of issues and highlighted that the country’s continuous use of the death penalty as a form of punishment was definitely on the agenda.

Key told Widodo that New Zealand was against the use of capital punishment. However, he does not expect changes to Jakarta’s policy any time soon. “We registered our feelings that the executions are some things we don’t support, despite the severity of the crimes that victims might have committed”.

And he is not alone in his concerns. Human rights group, Amnesty International said executions in Indonesia were used at least 14 times last year. And Indonesia’s Attorney-General indicated last month that sixteen individuals were set to face a firing squad this year. Next year there are funds for thirty more.

Exploiting the vulnerable

But does the solution fit the problem? Narcotics are a chronic issue for the country, with an estimated 5.1 million drug abusers. Widodo, last month urged police to chase, capture, and strike down drug dealers. He said, “If the law allowed it, [I’d tell you to] blast all of them.”

“Drug dealers perpetually realize ways in which to dupe law enforcers by exploiting parties that they would not suspect, corresponding to ladies and kids, as couriers. We have to prevent this and declare Indonesia’s war against illegal substances,” exclaimed Jokowi.

On the international stage powerful countries such as Germany have suggested he prevent such cruel penalisation, however Jokowi has remained resolute to his promise to tackle the drugs problem with the toughest of action.

A question of justice

The prospects for any future changes to Indonesia’s policies are uncertain. The current situation may be the result of Jowoki’s dissatisfaction with judicial corruption but, if he has no faith in the justice system and resorts to extra-judicial killings – what can the public do?

By using these types of harsh punishments, major political parties compete with each other for public support by appearing, “tough on crime.” This may work for them but it also allows weak and corrupt courts to carry on with very little imperative to change. That is a serious threat to the justice sector reform project.

In the bigger picture, human rights organisations and NGOs argue that the death sentence only has a minimal effect on reducing the number of drug traffickers.  Other issues are fuelling the growth in offenders, such as corrupt government, poor quality education and a lack of job opportunities.

As long as President Jokowi stands by his platform of refusing mercy to drug smugglers as a way to reinforce his image as a strong and assertive president then a move to a more humane policy is unlikely. And it seems there is little appetite at the national level to expect any better.

As one Indonesian graduate explained, “It has crafted a perception in Indonesia that drugs are a killing machine. It means if you are a drug-dealer, you are purely a mass murderer. And the death penalty is considered as well-warranted.”