Guest post by Andrew J. Novak
Indonesian president Joko Widodo (known popularly as ‘Jokowi’) was perceived as a promising agent for change when he was elected to office last July, but he has triggered recent diplomatic criticism for his unrepentant views on the death penalty, especially for drug trafficking, in ways that are drawing attention to the use of the death penalty in southeast Asia and beyond.
Jokowi claims that drug use takes the lives of 50 Indonesians per day and he promises no mercy in combating traffickers. Though drug trafficking is an often intricately premeditated crime, the death penalty for drug offenses appears to have little deterrence value, as it primarily ensnares drug mules –often poor migrant workers — rather than drug lords. In addition, the death penalty for drug trafficking falls heavily on foreign nationals, especially in southeast Asia where countries are increasingly interlinked, and their own nationals are on their neighbors’ death rows. Accordingly, diplomatic pressure to prevent the executions of a country’s citizens by foreign governments places increasing strain on the death penalty throughout the region. The Malaysian government’s opposition to the planned execution of its national Yong Vui Kong in Singapore, for instance, ultimately helped spur a major reform of Singapore’s death penalty laws in 2012 and led to Yong’s removal from death row. As a result of that opposition movement, Malaysia sent promising signs that it was internally reviewing its own mandatory death penalty laws, including for drug trafficking.
Jokowi’s government is now trapped in this diplomatic web. In January 2015, after a four-year moratorium, Indonesia carried out six executions, five of them of foreign nationals. In response to the execution of a Dutch national, the Netherlands, Indonesia’s former colonial power, withdrew its ambassador. Brazil followed suit after Jokowi rejected Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff’s personal appeal for clemency on behalf of a Brazilian national. The row with Brazil, in particular, has deepened: this past week, Rousseff indefinitely postponed accepting the credentials of the Indonesian ambassador-designate to Brazil, a snub that elicited strong protest from Jakarta. On February 22, Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Brazil. Rousseff is also pleading for another Brazilian national — one with a documented mental illness — who is facing imminent execution in Indonesia. In Vietnam, where recent wrongful convictions and grants of clemency have spurred reflection on its own death penalty regime, the foreign ministry publicly (and unsurprisingly) opposed Indonesia’s execution of a Vietnamese national. News reports also indicate that the Nigerian foreign minister summoned the Indonesian ambassador to protest the execution of a Nigerian national, and pressure is mounting to withdraw the Nigerian ambassador from Jakarta.
Indonesia is also seeking to avoid a standoff with Australia over the executions of the so-called ‘Bali Nine,’ including two Australian nationals convicted of attempting to smuggle drugs out of Bali, Indonesia. By all accounts, the two Australian nationals Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have been model inmates: publicly remorseful, articulate, and popular, they initiated and taught vocational courses to other prisoners. In addition, Chan has engaged in pastoral care and Sukumaran in drug counseling, and local residents have praised them for helping to reform Kerobokan Prison.
Moreover, the Australian government has lobbied Jokowi at the highest levels. Last week, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott sparked a social media backlash from Indonesians after he linked the threatened executions with $1 billion in Australian development aid to Indonesia in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that killed 100,000 people in the country. Australian foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop later clarified in a call to Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla that the comments were not intended to be threatening. Nevertheless, given its size and location, worsening relations with its near-neighbor Australia would undoubtedly become a more serious crisis for Jokowi’s government than the disputes with distant Brazil and the Netherlands.
Should Indonesia carry out the executions, the damage to its relations with other countries in the region may linger. Treatment of foreign nationals is based in part on reciprocity. Right now, Malaysia is unable to extradite a notorious criminal from Australia because of its death penalty laws. Indonesia may find itself in a similar position.
In addition, Indonesia acts on behalf of its foreign nationals on death row abroad. The Indonesian government has gone to great lengths to spare the life of Satinah Binti Jumadi Ahmad, a domestic worker facing execution in Saudi Arabia for the murder of her abusive employer, including paying nearly $2 million in ‘blood money’ to the victim’s family. Ahmad’s family has witheringly criticized Jokowi for his double standards.
Faced with intense diplomatic pressure, the Indonesian government is still sending mixed signals. The Indonesian attorney general backed off a promise that Chan and Sukumaran would be executed during the month of February. Officials now say that the two men will be moved to the execution site this week, though they still have not set a date for the executions by firing squad. Jakarta also sent a cable to Canberra indicating that it did not wish the executions to cause a serious rift in relations. Jokowi earlier issued a blanket denial of clemency to all drug traffickers, sparking litigation to be argued before Indonesia’s administrative court this week that this denial of clemency violates international law because it was not genuine and individualized. Every delay compounds the pressure and reduces Indonesia’s options. After taking such a hard line against drug trafficking, Jokowi would lose face if he is seen to cave to Australian demands, especially with an increasing public backlash emerging against Australian meddling. This is not a trivial point — Jokowi is not in a politically strong position domestically and does not command a majority in the Indonesian parliament, where nationalists like his presidential opponent Prabowo Subianto will loudly criticize any perception that Jokowi is softening his stance.
Whether Chan and Sukumaran will live or die may depend on whether Indonesia can find a face-saving way out of this standoff. The government may still get one. Authorities are investigating an ethics complaint filed by Chan and Sukumaran’s legal team that the trial judges solicited bribes in exchange for lighter sentences. Seeking a new trial may be one way out for Chan and Sukumaran—and a political escape hatch for Jokowi.
Andrew Novak is adjunct professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at George Mason University and the author of The Global Decline of the Mandatory Death Penalty: Comparative Jurisprudence and Legislative Reform in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.