Indonesia’s denial of mercy
Just after midnight on April 29, eight convicted drug offenders faced an Indonesian firing squad. Two were Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of the heroin smuggling ring known as the ‘Bali Nine’. In the past year the international media has had widespread coverage of their successful rehabilitation and reform, and how they served and cared for their fellow inmates in Bali’s Kerobokan prison.
Among the other six, we know that Indonesian Zainal Abidin did not get a fair review because the district court had failed to forward his case to the Supreme Court for nearly a decade. We know that Brazilian inmate Rodrigo Gularte was mentally ill, that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. We know that until the final minutes of his life Gularte did not realise he was going to be executed.
I have friends who are ostensibly against the death penalty, yet make the hard-hearted claim that “they deserved it”. But I saw myself in these prisoners. I saw the mistakes I had made as a younger man, though they did not have consequences as grave as this. I understood that they were human beings, and so was I. And when I read that they died singing a song that was picked for my own sister’s wedding, I was utterly devastated.
When Indonesia shot these eight men through the heart, it shot mine too.
Those who know me in person, and those of you who have followed my blog for some time, know that Indonesia has been a great obsession since 2012. I often speak fondly of its people, the beauty of its coral reefs and volcanoes, the astonishing cultural diversity found across its 13-17,000 islands.
By day I work at a travel magazine, and this month I forfeited my Easter holiday to illustrate an ‘Indonesia Issue’ that was my own idea from the very beginning. In an empty office building with the air-conditioning turned off, I skipped meals and laboured until my right hand throbbed in pain. I did not get paid extra money for creating those illustrations; it was never part of my job description as an editor. I did it purely out of love.
But now I wonder if all those efforts were meaningless. Before April 29, I believed that Indonesians were forgiving, compassionate people. I believed that their nation was worth celebrating, and that it deserved a better place on the international stage. In spite of all its faults, I believed that it was one of the most beautiful countries on earth. I am still trying my best to believe those things, but the recent executions have shaken my faith in Indonesia.
When President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected last July, I believed he would revitalise the mess that is Indonesian politics. I believed he was a reform-minded, capable leader who could take Indonesia where his predecessors had failed. Instead his incompetence became clear after taking office, and following a string of blunders, he took a hardline stance against an international outcry over the drug offenders on death row.
Jokowi had the power to grant clemency. He had the opportunity to pardon these reformed men, to recognise the value of human life, to demonstrate that forgiveness and mercy are values treasured by the Indonesian state. Instead he chose to boost his flagging popularity by riding on a wave of nationalism and widespread domestic support for capital punishment.
Sadly, 75% of Indonesians believe in the death penalty. They are angry at the negative coverage in the international media and say it is necessary to counter the war on drugs.
But I do not buy the nationalistic rhetoric that drugs are tearing the country apart. I do not believe that executing convicted drug mules will stem the flow of narcotics or their production. It is true that there is a major drug problem in Indonesia, but I do not believe that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. In 2005 Chan and Sukumaran knew they were smuggling heroin out of Bali, but the clear warnings on customs forms and those at the airport did not dissuade them from breaking the law.
Unbelievably, Jokowi has failed to see that reformed offenders like Chan and Sukumaran could have been valuable allies in the crackdown on drugs. They knew the gravity of their crimes and were not asking to be released from prison. We know about their efforts to make amends behind bars. How much more good would they have brought to the world had they been allowed to live?
Still, one quarter of Indonesians do not agree with the death penalty. Local human rights groups have long been campaigning for its abolishment; Prananda Surya Paloh, a member of the House of Representatives, spoke openly on the issue, advocating punishment with “a moral background and a sense of humanity”. In February bestselling author Laksmi Pamuntjak wrote an eloquent, powerful essay for The Guardian arguing the same. She had lost her own younger brother to drug abuse, and her words echoed with the depth of her compassion.
Then there is Bama, my best friend and longtime travel buddy, one of the few in his social circle who does not support such an inhumane method of criminal punishment. It is these voices that have kept my faith in Indonesia alive. ◊