On death row: Indonesia’s zeal for capital punishment

Rafki Hidayat
Drug dealers are no saints – that’s a given – they are criminals. But do they deserve the death penalty?

The drama surrounding the impending executions of drug convicts in Indonesia, including two Australians known as part of the “Bali Nine”, has kept me up in bed at night this past week or so. The way many Indonesians are so eager to see the convicts executed have been making me think of death and what it means for many in the country.

I’ve asked my friends what made them so excited over the execution, and their answers almost always went like this:

Me: “Do you agree with the Bali Nine’s execution?”
Them: “Of course.”
M: “Why?”
T: “Because if they don’t die, millions of Indonesian people will.”
M: “How is that?”
T: “ Because of the drugs?”
M: “What kind of drugs were they transporting?”
T: “I don’t know.”
M: “How much drugs were they caught with?”
T: “I don’t know.”
M: “Where were they taking the drugs to?”
T: “Of course to Indonesia, to Bali.”

I found that their arguments have been based on incomplete information. They support the death penalty convinced that foreign traffickers were “out to destroy Indonesia with their drugs”, and that, sadly, their understanding of the cases is wrong.

Many people I spoke to were not aware that the Bali Nine “duo”, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, had not planned to smuggle 8.2kg of heroin into Indonesia from Australia. Rather, they were arrested at the Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar, Bali, 10 years ago while trying to smuggle the drugs out of Bali into Australia. This may seem like an irrelevant detail in the all-out war against narcotics, but people should at least get the details of the case right before they make an opinion on it.

The blind support for the executions have been provoked by media headlines, which go along these lines:

“Government told not to flip-flop on drug dealers’ execution”

“Death penalty for drug dealers in line with the Islamic Law”

“No compromise on death penalty for drug dealers”

“Death penalty for drug dealers to protect human rights of others”

But what we read, hear or watch through the media is never a complete picture. Editorial policies and perspectives affect what the public read or watch. In the process, details are removed or facts omitted. Sometimes, they are important information that can influence public opinion.

In the case of Chan and Sukumaran, we rarely hear that after almost 10 years in jail, the duo had become exemplary figures among other prisoners in Kerobokan penitentiary in Bali. This is why most Indonesians are also unfamiliar with the fact that the United Nations states that the death penalty should only be reserved for the most serious of crimes, such as premeditated murder. The UN has even called for a global moratorium on death penalties since 2007.

PORTRAIT. A portrait of President Joko Widodo painted by Myuran Sukumaran, one of the Bali Nine duo on death row. Photo by EPA


This is also why we rarely hear or read from figures who oppose the death penalty for drug dealers. When Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama visited President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to ask for the abolition of death penalty in drug cases, the local media focused more on covering the governor’s conflict with the city councilors.

Does the minimal coverage on the other side of the debate, which may generate public sympathy for the convicts or influence them to rethink their position on the issue, reflect the media’s insensitivity and their less-than-thoughtful approach to such a grave issue? Or do they merely channel the voice of the authority?

Regardless, what is apparent is that the only way to make Indonesians happy right now is to execute these convicts.

Should drug traffickers be sentenced to death?

Distributing drugs is a crime, but is it a crime punishable by death? President Jokowi has repeatedly stated that drug consumption is a serious and urgent problem in Indonesia. The National Narcotics Body (BNN) says that 50 Indonesians die every day because of drugs. This means every year there are 18,000 deaths from drugs abuse.

But does this data justify death for drug traffickers?

Consuming drugs is a personal choice. Most of the time people use drugs consciously, and drug dealers fill in the demand. People consume drugs for various reasons: to fit in, to escape reality, to find artistic inspiration, to boost stamina for work, or just to have fun. What we often forget is that people consume drugs not just because they’re available, but because they’ve made decisions and steps to take the drugs.

If other factors also contribute to the death of a drug user – such as family problems, weak law enforcement on drug trafficking, or the income gap – why don’t we also include them, and not just the drug dealers, as the cause of the so-called “drug crisis” in Indonesia? Or are we merely looking for scapegoats to blame so we can escape the moral responsibility?

Consider this analogy: a person commits suicide by shooting himself with an illegally purchased gun, and another person is accidentally shot dead also with an illegal firearm during a hunting trip.

Is it then appropriate to execute the illegal gun dealers?

Drug dealers are no saints – that’s a given – they are criminals. But do they deserve the death penalty?

If, by the president’s logic, sending drug dealers to death is the right way to tackle the drug crisis that claims so many lives, then what about the 43,000 Indonesians who die every year in motor vehicle accidents? Why hasn’t a “traffic crisis” been declared? Moreover, with some of the convicts already executed, where are the statistics showing that the executions have reduced drug distribution and consumption?

The fixation with death

As I write this article, the Bali Nine duo and another death row inmate, Nigerian Raheem Agbaje Salami, have just been transferred to the Nusakambangan prison, where the execution will be held. It’s a chilling thought that made my stomach stir. I couldn’t imagine what was going through their minds.

No one in his or her right mind wants to die. For most people, death is frightening. And to know when and how they will die is perhaps the worst suffering a human being can endure. Making people wait for years before their execution is a severe punishment already, not only for the convicts but also their loved ones. Chan and Sukumaran were sentenced to death almost 10 years ago, while Salami had been imprisoned since 1998. For thousands of days, their families have not been able to grieve as they were still alive, but neither could they feel relieved, for every encounter might well be their last.

Years in prison change criminals. The two Australians who were arrested in their early 20s have become English mentors, taught computer class and gave painting workshops to other prisoners. Salami requested that his cornea and kidney be donated to people after his execution. If crimes diminish the value of humanity, they have tried to redeem their past mistakes. The same may be said of the other less famous convicts. Executing them now is like killing a different person than the criminals they were years ago.

President Jokowi warned other countries, including Australia, not to interfere with Indonesia’s legal sovereignty over the capital punishment issues.

The statement reminds me of the recent mob attack that burned to death a motorcycle robber. Many people said this is what happens when people no longer trust law enforcement – they take the law into their own hands. But this a contradiction, while they have no faith in the law, they break the law by killing a person without giving him a chance to defend himself in court.


Perhaps none of these have anything to do with the distrust with the law. Maybe our society believes death is the solution to every crime?


And where is the law enforcement that the president proudly defends? Why has there not been any police investigation into the murder of the robber? Does a murder become legal when it is perpetrated by the mass? Or are the police and authorities reluctant to go against public opinion that justifies the mob attack.

This, unfortunately, is the portrait of Indonesia’s justice system. Too many questions, not enough answers. And with the law enforcement and the justice system suffering from credibility problems, how can we accept the death penalty when the law tends to side with people with money and power? Death is too pricey a cost for a flawed legal decision. We cannot bring the dead back to life.

When this article is published, the convicts may still be alive, enduring what may be the worst moment in their lives. Every second we squander is a precious last moment for them, until they are told that their time is up. – Rappler.com

Rafki Hidayat is a journalist for a private TV station. He loves science and wants to be writer and filmmaker. He first wrote this piece in Bahasa Indonesia on his blog.

The English version of this article was originally published on Magdalene.co, a Jakarta-based online publication that offers a fresh perspective beyond the typical gender and cultural confines.