Editions : July-September 2015


In a speech at Indonesia's prestigious Gadjah Mada University last December, President Joko Widodo said a “drug emergency” was one of the key challenges his government would have to overcome. Claiming that between 40 and 50 Indonesians die every day from narcotics and related causes, Joko stressed that none of the 64 drug convicts on death row would receive clemency from him. Pleas for clemency from many of them had piled up in the presidential palace for years, Joko said, before telling his audience that his answer in no uncertain terms was: “No, no, no.”

Joko, who took office in October 2014, swiftly made good on his promise. Fourteen drug convicts, including 12 foreign nationals, were executed by firing squad in January and April. Previously, across three decades, Indonesia averaged fewer than two executions per year, and only a fraction of the condemned had been convicted of drug offenses.

This decisive turn to executions has starkly divided domestic and international opinion. Within Indonesia, polls show executing drug convicts to be overwhelmingly popular among the public, and Joko has highlighted these judicial killings repeatedly in speeches around the country. Internationally, the executions triggered outrage, predominantly because of the large number of foreigners shot dead, including from Australia, the Netherlands and Brazil, which have abolished capital punishment. Three countries withdrew their ambassadors. Numerous political leaders, commentators and celebrities have expressed condemnation. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, called on Indonesia to implement a moratorium on executions, which Jakarta ignored.

What explains Joko’s embrace of executions so early in his presidency, and how have they impacted Indonesia's international relations? Has the international response had any effect on the Joko administration or any broader impact on Indonesia's own internal debate on capital punishment?

A coincidence of interests

The ramping up of executions by the Joko administration could not have happened without a pro-death penalty president. But Joko’s views are only part of the story. The executions reflect a coincidence of interests between a state agency that has always pushed for executions, a controversial new attorney general looking to prove himself and a new president seeking quick wins.

Under successive presidents, Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency (BNN) has been one of the principal advocates for capital punishment for drug offenses, arguing that the scale of the country’s problem necessitates using the death penalty. As the agency responsible for preventing and investigating narcotics crimes, BNN has long criticized Indonesia’s courts for handing down so few death sentences and complained about government “sluggishness” in executing drug convicts. To bolster its case, the narcotics agency has commissioned research on drug-related fatalities and the prevalence of drug use, and on this basis pushes the message that there’s a drug emergency.

The agency’s entreaties gained little traction under Joko’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The key exception came in 2013, when BNN embarrassed Yudhoyono into resuming executions after a four-year moratorium after rearresting a death row drug convict whom the president had granted clemency. Even this episode was a limited success for the narcotics agency, as only two drug convicts were put before the firing squad during the remainder of Yudhoyono’s presidency. Overall, only four of the 21 people executed during the Yudhoyono administration were drug convicts.

When Joko took office, the narcotics agency applied pressure almost immediately, with BNN head Anang Iskandar telling journalists that his office had written to the Attorney General's Office calling for all drug convicts on death row to be executed. Coming 10 days after Joko’s inauguration, however, this gained little public attention.

Yet even more important to the spike in executions than BNN has been HM Prasetyo, whom Joko appointed as attorney general one month into his presidential term. A former senior prosecutor, Prasetyo was a controversial choice because he was a senior member of a political party that was part of the governing coalition, and was chided as a political appointee. Needing rapid results to silence his critics, Prasetyo became the leading government official pushing to execute drug convicts as soon as possible.

For their part, death penalty supporters have used the furor over Prasetyo’s appointment to push for executions. Utomo Karim, a defense attorney for a Nigerian drug convict who was among eight people executed in April, recalls a challenge put to Prasetyo on live television by Henry Yosodiningrat, a lawyer and lawmaker from Joko’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle. Yosodiningrat, head of an antidrug nongovernmental organization named Granat, has for more than a decade been one of Indonesia’s most vocal proponents of executing drug convicts. He said the attorney general should begin executing drug convicts within three months or resign.

Three days after this challenge aired, the Attorney General’s Office announced plans to execute 25 death row convicts by the end of 2015. Prasetyo repeatedly publicized deadlines for each round of executions, lobbied to limit legal avenues available to death row prisoners to prevent delays and made advanced preparations to execute prisoners even before the courts ruled on their appeals. As a result, Utomo said, he didn’t have time to explore further possible legal challenges for another death row client who was executed in January.

Prasetyo pushed so actively for executions that some Indonesian opponents of the death penalty called him “bloodthirsty.” Nongovernmental organizations, meanwhile, criticized his approach to prisoners’ legal rights as cursory. “The attorney general should not just look at whether the legal process has finished or not, but whether or not it is just,” says Anis Hidayah, head of Migrant Care, which has campaigned against capital punishment. “Whether or not it has finished, you can see from documents, but whether or not it has been just is far more important.”


Demonstrators offer money to "Tony Abbott," as part of a protest condemning the Australian prime minister for suggesting tsunami relief money was a reason not to execute two Australian drug convicts.


Nevertheless, Prasetyo is not the ultimate decision maker regarding executions. That power rests with Joko as president. At times, he has sought to play down his role, emphasizing that the country’s courts determine whether to hand down the death penalty, not the president. But in countries around the world that have capital punishment, it is political leaders who decide whether to actively use it, refrain from executions or even to take steps toward abolition.

Indeed, in an opinion piece in The Jakarta Post that ran shortly after the first round of executions, Daniel Pascoe, a death penalty scholar at the City University of Hong Kong, highlighted the “executive’s responsibility to enforce the law, and to exercise the lenient discretion not to enforce it in appropriate cases,” as crucial to the separation of powers.
Many death penalty abolitionists were surprised at Joko’s retentionist stance, saying there were no prior hints of his views. Even after the executions began, Joko has been coy on this point, twice refusing to answer a direct question from an Al Jazeera correspondent on whether he personally supports the death penalty.

An exception is prominent human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, who represented two Australian drug convicts who were executed in April. He recalls a conversation in 2014 between Joko and his campaign team about corruption. “I don't want theories; if someone asked me to hang corruptors, I would agree,” Joko said, according to Todung.

Executing drug convicts in large numbers serves two interests for Joko. As a president who has focused on quick wins, the executions enable him to swiftly demonstrate his determination to improve law enforcement against drugs. To this end, the president has made a spectacle of the executions, seeking affirmation of his stance from his audiences at public addresses ranging from the inauguration of a mosque to a gathering of high school students. So pronounced has this feature of the executions been that several former cabinet ministers have publicly criticized the government. Hassan Wirajuda, a former foreign minister and the editor in chief of Strategic Review, for example, warned the government during an interview with Indonesia’s state-run Antara news agency against making too many statements and giving the impression that “we are enjoying executing people.”

In this context, it is fascinating to observe polling results by Kompas, a leading Indonesian daily newspaper, showing that public satisfaction with narcotics law enforcement actually declined between January and early April, in line with worsening views on government anticorruption efforts and the fairness of the country’s security forces.

Joko has also used the executions to present himself as decisive, a priority for the president after a close election last year against Prabowo Subianto, a former army general who had promised firm leadership. In just one example, in reference to the executions, Joko told a crowd of supporters in May, “I have never talked tough … I just gave the order once – do it.”

Impact on international relations

Indonesians and the international community have found little common ground in their response to the executions. Starkly contrasting narratives within Indonesia and abroad meant that when the executions ultimately went ahead, neither side felt like the other had listened, adding to the offense caused.

Within Indonesia, discussion has focused on the condemned prisoners’ perceived direct responsibility for drug-related deaths and on Indonesia’s legal sovereignty. The “drug emergency” message has had remarkable cut-through because it boils down the justification for the executions to a single sentence emphasizing the scale of Indonesia’s narcotics problem.

Joko has repeated this message of a drug emergency causing 50 deaths per day (or more than 18,000 per year) in speeches around the country. Indonesia’s mostly pro-death penalty media has also afforded the drug emergency message extensive airplay. While traveling around Indonesia earlier this year, it was plain to see the power of the drug emergency message. Numerous interlocutors told me that the number of drug-related fatalities necessitated executions, often citing Joko’s figures. Polling figures also suggest the perceived scale of the drug problem has been a key factor in support among Indonesians for the death penalty. In a poll by Indo Barometer in March, Indonesians who agreed with executing drug traffickers cited “narcotics destroy [our] youthful generation” as their primary reason.

Legal sovereignty has been another prominent theme in Indonesian discussions. In advancing this argument, Joko and his senior aides have argued that putting prisoners to death once they have exhausted their appeals is nothing more than Indonesia carrying out its laws. They have cast foreign advocacy as intervention, reflecting a feeling that the international community should have ceased efforts to stop the executions once Indonesia said no.

The idea that foreign advocacy reflects the efforts of unpopular foreign leaders seeking to increase their domestic support is also pervasive within Indonesia. Indeed, Said Aqil Siradj, the head of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organization, emerged from a meeting with Joko in February and told reporters that the president had said the approval ratings of Brazil’s and Australia’s leaders were down, and they were merely protesting to jack up their support.

Outside of Indonesia, the drug emergency message has fallen flat because international audiences view the figures as discredited. The main reason has been a powerful critique of the National Narcotics Agency’s research penned by Claudia Stoicescu, a doctoral candidate at Oxford University, which has been only sparsely reported within Indonesia. As most people outside Indonesia consider the figure of 50 deaths per day invalid, Joko’s repetition of it signals to international audiences that the president is not scrutinizing the case for executions. The president’s drug emergency rhetoric thus adds to frustration, rather than convincing foreign audiences that the executions are necessary.

Foreign discussion on the executions has also focused on the condemned prisoners’ legal challenges in a way not paralleled within Indonesia. Reactions to a two-month delay of the second round of executions illustrate the difference: Indonesian media questioned why the executions had not yet gone ahead, whereas international reports questioned Indonesia making preparations for executions while legal challenges were ongoing. Expert commentary highlighting arbitrary sentencing patterns and judicial corruption in Indonesia also meant that many outside the country who saw the prisoners as justly convicted nevertheless felt them to be undeserving of the punishment meted out to them.

International discussions also contrasted Indonesia’s domestic policy of conducting executions with its foreign advocacy for its citizens facing the death penalty abroad. Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, explicitly cast her pleas to Indonesia in these terms, saying in Parliament that Australia was only doing what Indonesia did when it made “representations on behalf of Indonesian families in support of Indonesian death row prisoners abroad.”

Combined with the fact that almost all prisoners being executed in Indonesia were foreigners, Indonesia’s foreign advocacy spurred a perception of fundamental inconsistency and unfairness, amplified by an entrenched perception that Joko is exploiting executions for political gain.

How will these starkly different perspectives and the offense they have caused impact longer-term relations with countries whose citizens Indonesia has executed? Many Indonesians argue that the underlying interests in the affected relationships remain unaltered, meaning any damage will be fleeting. Another stream of thought in Indonesia holds that although the executions may initially cause offense, in the longer term the country will win respect by demonstrating that it is newly resolute under Joko.

These interpretations are partially correct: other countries will always maintain relations with Indonesia, underpinned by pragmatism. Such pragmatism is evident in the unwillingness both of Indonesia and the countries whose citizens it has executed to sacrifice existing interests over these executions. Hence Brazil, the Netherlands and Australia each employed the diplomatic theater of withdrawing ambassadors to respond to the executions, rather than suspending or placing new conditions on any area of bilateral cooperation. Indonesia, too, turned to theater when it withdrew its ambassador-designate after Brazil delayed the confirmation of his credentials.

Nevertheless, the executions have caused damage by making it more difficult for these countries to build stronger ties with Indonesia. The deepest international partnerships go beyond a cold calculation of interests to also encompass shared values. Only a very small minority of countries shares Indonesia’s values on capital punishment for drug offenses. Just 11 countries worldwide, few of them democratic states, have executed a drug convict since 2004, according to Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle, who are death penalty scholars at Oxford University. As such, in underlining other countries’ differences with Indonesia and disaffecting previous advocates of stronger bilateral ties, the executions make it harder for Indonesia to deepen its relationships with its international partners.

Impact of the international response

In the first six months of his presidency, Joko had already executed twice as many drug convicts as all previous democratic-era Indonesian presidents combined. More executions look likely, with the government having foreshadowed plans to empty death row of drug convicts and polls suggesting that more than 80 percent of Indonesians support the executions. Indeed, even before eight people, including seven foreigners, were executed in April, officials from the Attorney General’s Office had started to talk publicly about a third round of executions, although no date had been set as of press time. However, as of press time, an Indonesian court was reviewing the 11th-hour legal challenge of a French drug convict who was spared the firing squad in April; if the court rules against him, he could be executed within days. A female drug convict from the Philippines was also given a last-minute reprieve so she can testify in a human trafficking case back home, although prosecutors say she may still be executed at some point.


Indonesian Attorney General HM Prasetyo (right, wearing spectacles, speaking into microphone) is interviewed by journalists following the execution of seven foreign drug convicts and an Indonesian man in April.


On the other side, there is no sign that the international condemnation of executions for drug offenses in Indonesia will relent. There are still more than 30 foreigners from multiple countries on death row, including prisoners who are already figures of sympathy in their home nations such as British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford. The withdrawal of ambassadors by abolitionist countries whose citizens have been executed to date also creates pressure for others to respond similarly.

What effect is this international response likely to have? Few see any sign that anything to date has swayed the ultimate decision maker on the executions, President Joko Widodo. Having for months used judicial killings to project strength, it would be politically costly within Indonesia for him to change his mind now.

Todung, the death row defense attorney, perceives changes coming, however. He argues that Joko had not anticipated the scale of international protests. “I think he was surprised, but because he’s a stubborn person, he did not back down. Perhaps after these executions, he will slow down a bit,” he said. Todung added that the president wanted to attend international forums such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group and the G20 without controversy.

But Todung holds a minority view, and Joko has himself continued to tell the public that he rejects international pressure. Speaking to a crowd of his supporters in mid-May, after the second round of executions, Joko claimed to have proceeded despite warnings about an international response and questioned the priorities of those advocating on behalf of death row inmates. “Why is it that it is only the one or two people [executed] who are clearly dealers who are attended to?” he asked the crowd, adding that the more than 18,000 Indonesians who he claims die annually from drug-related causes were not. “That is called ‘unjust.’”

The 11th-hour reprieve Joko granted to Filipino Mary Jane Veloso may be a counterexample to the view that the president remains aloof to international advocacy. Her case is flawed as a counterpoint, however, because her background as a female migrant worker has made her a uniquely sympathetic figure within Indonesia among death row prisoners. Moreover, even with the backing of a broader, more active coalition of human rights organizations and supportive media coverage, Veloso did not have her death sentence commuted.

Beyond the Indonesian government, there is little sign that the international response has changed the minds of Indonesian supporters of the death penalty, given the clearly visible nationalist reaction. Manifested initially in calls for the Indonesian government to remain firm in the face of perceived foreign meddling, this nationalist reaction has evolved to include a feeling that Indonesia has been unfairly singled out.

Some Indonesians have questioned why Australia did not withdraw its ambassadors when Singapore and Malaysia executed its citizens, or complained that Saudi Arabia did not incur criticism from Ban, the UN secretary general, for executing two Indonesian migrant workers in April.
There is no reason to expect this nationalist reaction will diminish as more of Indonesia’s international relations are drawn into the executions controversy.

Arguably, Indonesia’s nationalist reaction creates new obstacles for Indonesian abolitionists in their advocacy against the death penalty. It runs the risk of hardening attitudes toward the death penalty, and at times sees Indonesian human rights groups accused of being beholden to foreign interests.

But international criticism is a two-edged sword – activists and sympathetic media also explicitly reference international responses in making their cases against the death penalty. In arguing for a moratorium, for example, Tempo magazine called on the government to consider Indonesia’s worsening international reputation. In other instances, Indonesian academics and activists have explicitly sought to internationalize Indonesia’s domestic death penalty debate, notably in writing to The Lancet journal to call on the Indonesian government to adopt an “evidence-informed response to illicit drugs.”

Ultimately, whether international parties can influence Indonesia’s execution policy in the longer term remains to be seen. What is not in doubt is that Indonesia’s policy of capital punishment for drug offenses will continue to have an international dimension. In the words of former foreign minister Hassan: “In the globalization era, domestic issues will definitely have international implications.”


Dave McRae is a senior research fellow with the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne.


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