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Indonesia’s denial of mercy

Labuan Bajo Sunset

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. 

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. I am disgusted and appalled by these executions. In Australia we heard lots about the efforts to gain clemency for the 2 Australians. Yes, they were guilty if a crime, but as you say, many of us did stupid things when we were young. Surely they deserved a second chance. I will never visit Bali again and I hope Australians stay away. The government needs to know that they have severely damaged the image of their country in the world.

    May 1, 2015
    • You would think that any statesman in their right mind would have granted clemency to drug offenders who had obviously been rehabilitated. However Joko Widodo has proved that he is not a statesman and you are right, his actions have clearly damaged Indonesia’s standing on the global stage.

      I know the anger is such that there are calls to cut aid and divert it to Nepal, and boycott Bali too, but I don’t think it’s fair for the common person to pay for the mistakes of their incompetent government. Staying away means missing out on the opportunity to engage and help change perceptions about capital punishment.

      May 1, 2015
      • I understand that it is not fair on the local people who need tourists, but the government needs to be sent a message somehow that what they have done is wrong.

        May 4, 2015
  2. themonkseal #

    Reblogged this on themonkseal.

    May 1, 2015
  3. themonkseal #

    In Indian judicial system, convicts and accused are given many chances to defend themselves; and death penalty occurs in a small proportion of cases. According to the constitution, there always is hope for someone to change their ways; that ‘taking the life of an innocent is a greater crime than letting a criminal live’.

    May 1, 2015
    • Thank you for reblogging and sharing about how the Indian system works.

      What strikes me about these executions is that prisoners like the two Australians had completely changed their ways. They should have had their sentence commuted to life imprisonment or even less, and yet the Indonesian president did not even bother to look at their appeals for clemency. Such coldheartedness reflects very badly on a head of state and his or her nation.

      May 1, 2015
  4. Lord of Mirkwood #

    We have a huge death penalty problem in America too, with one of the highest conviction rates – right up there with China and North Korea. It is applied way too often and, frequently, racial minority convicts are more likely to receive the death penalty than white ones. It’s disgusting and it needs to be abolished.

    May 1, 2015
    • I think people sometimes forget that it isn’t just developing countries that have the death penalty – especially for America, a nation that prides itself on the right to life and liberty, it just isn’t right. I hope more states work to abolish it in the near future.

      May 1, 2015
  5. Beautiful thoughtful post 🙂 thankyou

    May 1, 2015
    • You’re welcome. 🙂 It was very tough to write this post, but I hope it stirs people to think and act with compassion.

      May 1, 2015
  6. Perhaps this article will give you another view to consider. Like the writer, I too am against the death penalty, but the grandstanding of the Australia media and politicians was bound to produce the result that happened.

    May 1, 2015
    • Thanks for sharing that, Alison. I agree with his point that the issue of the death penalty should be raised with China, the US and other countries that still use it, and that vocal criticism of Indonesia’s judicial process (however flawed it may be) did not help the case. Neither did Abbott’s comments about remembering Australian aid in the wake of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. I’d say the grandstanding happened on both sides – both Jokowi and Abbott did so to drum up support from their domestic audiences. It is horrendous that eight lives were needlessly cut short to make a point about national sovereignty.

      May 1, 2015
  7. This was a really disappointing piece of news…I was with a group of friends when we heard it and could not completely understanding how countries can execute foreign nationals, but then that question led to many others. This happens all over the world and it leads to the big question of is it every appropriate. No easy answer, great post and take on this situation.

    May 2, 2015
    • Thank you, Randall. I guess it happens far more often than we realise. The bigger topic is why so many countries continue to execute prisoners, foreign or not, to act as a deterrent against such crimes. I just don’t think that any human court has the right to decide who lives and who doesn’t in this way.

      May 4, 2015
  8. I also found the way that they went about it quite sneaky and underhand. I don’t believe they explicitly said they were going to execute them until they knew no-one could stop them. I appreciate that there is a terrible drug problem there, but I don’t believe murdering the ‘Bali nine’ will change that. I’m disappointed because I’ve been wanting to go to Indonesia and Bali in particular for the longest time, my idea being that it’s peaceful and tranquil. But now, I just don’t know how I feel about it. If I were to visit, I’d be funding this man, this man that murdered those people to prove a point on an international platform.

    May 3, 2015
    • As much as we wanted the Indonesian president to spare their lives, his priority was pleasing a domestic audience that widely supports the death penalty. Sadly it was not really a surprise in the grand scheme of things; the death sentence was handed down for Chan and Sukumaran back in 2006, so the only question from then onwards was when it was going to happen.

      Joko Widodo does have blood on his hands, but so does the Australian Federal Police. They knew about the smuggling ring and Indonesia’s death penalty, and yet they still tipped off the Bali police instead of arresting the traffickers on arrival in Australia. So I don’t personally condone a boycott in this case. If we were to avoid countries with capital punishment, Malaysia, Singapore, China and even the US would be on the list.

      May 4, 2015
  9. An eloquent and thought provoking post James. I have always been vociferously against the death penalty, although I strayed briefly over the Delhi rape case. Seems like nationalist jingoism takes precedence in the entire region over all else. I share your dismay and pain. And Bama’s.

    May 3, 2015
    • Thank you, Madhu. The Delhi rape case was truly horrific and I’m sure that many made an exception with the perpetrators of that heinous crime. The rising tide of nationalism across Asia is very concerning – I do not hope to see tensions in the South China Sea and other flashpoints turn to genuine conflict.

      May 4, 2015
  10. James, a very authentic, interesting, and heart-felt read. And I feel your message in every word. I understand that many people argue against a death penalty. And posturing and politics, and business, happen everywhere. And I can see I may be the odd man out here, but if we take a “democratic” view of things, and reckon in the fact that 75% of Indonesians agree–who are we, as outsiders, to say it’s wrong in their country?

    In my mind, spending life in prison is far worse, far less humane, than death. And I understand that many people believe it’s wrong to take another’s life, even criminals. And someone might argue the death penalty is too severe for a drug trafficking crime. But that is the law in Indonesia, and most Indonesians agree with that law. If someone breaks the law, what should anyone in the world expect? And with respect to the Delhi rape case…I would not have chosen death for those guys. I will not say what I would have chosen, but I’m guessing it might not be quick nor humane.

    May 5, 2015
    • James, Just wanted to let you know that your sensitive and inspiring post inspired me to write a post on the human condition. So thanks, again.

      May 6, 2015
    • Badfish, thanks for giving us a thought-provoking take on the issue. It’s admirable that you encourage us not to pass judgment as outsiders, but then there are certain issues that I will speak out on whether they take place in Indonesia or the US or my native Hong Kong. I’ll admit there were doubts about whether this was appropriate for the blog, but I did not feel it was right to ignore current events and only address happy things.

      Actually you’re not the first person to tell me that life in prison is worse than death. For those of us who love to travel, we value our freedom of movement and hate the idea of being cooped up. And thanks too for responding with a post of your own, Badfish – I really appreciate it.

      May 7, 2015
  11. I believe for all those drug smugglers understand the Indonesia have death penalty but somehow they still broke the law, and yet now you blame Indonesia to do or to act according to their law?.

    May 6, 2015
    • Being imposed by fallible human beings, I don’t think the law should be seen in such black and white terms. I am against the death penalty and even more so when the offenders in question have been clearly rehabilitated (as they have in this case). Instead of sending them to the firing squad, these men could have been held up as an example of Indonesia’s success in prison rehabilitation. Even the prison governor at Kerobokan could not understand why they were still being sent to their deaths.

      The question we should be asking is this: does executing drug smugglers constitute a humane or effective solution for reducing drug crime and rates of addiction?

      May 7, 2015
    • Mel, I see your point about respecting one country’s law. But as James said, it is imposed by fallible human being. I believe what James tries to convey is that there are better ways to punish those convicts, and to rehabilitate them.

      Speaking of respecting law, let me take you to one extreme case: women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. So is it wrong for the world to demand the country to change its law regarding to that? Does the world have to just sit and do nothing to respect that law? Law is subject to debates and discussions, and as societies evolve, so does law.

      We should take criticism with an open mind, put forward discussion and leave anger behind. There were, unfortunately, disproportionate responses from some Australians on the recent executions, adding unnecessary tensions between the two neighbors and derailing people’s focus on the main issue. But that should not have provided us with an excuse to also react disproportionately.

      May 7, 2015
      • Bama, thanks so much but I assure you no anger in my comment. Just try to

        May 9, 2015
      • Bama, thanks a lot. I assure you no anger or disproportionately in my comment. I just want to try to emphasized the word ‘respect other countries’ rule). Yes, I know there is no reduction of drug dealer is those country, in fact there even more and grow and worst. They even mixed it with food, cookies etc. They persuade worker to consume it to reduce tiredness and many workers believe in it and become chaos. Its all because government gave so many mercy (grasi) to all drug dealer and make them think “oh, its ok.. they didnt kill me, so I can do that again”. Many of drug dealer with death penalty are recidivist. People who sell drugs over and over again..

        May 9, 2015
      • I’m sorry Mel, but I don’t buy your argument. Can you back up your claim of drug-instigated “chaos” in countries like Australia? How about figures that support your idea of rising drug crime in places that do not have the death penalty? What makes you think that typical workers “consume drugs to reduce tiredness”?

        I have lived in the UK and Spain and have also spent time in Canada. I did not see any of the above happening in those more liberally-minded countries.

        May 9, 2015
      • There the number close to 18.000 people die every year due to drug addicts James, and most of them are productive age, and 4,5 million in rehab, what do you say about that? Do you know how those drug dealer sell their stuff?. First persuade to get free, next day they will charge a bit. Once when they are addicted they will not care even if the addict slay their parents, wife, kids just to get drugs. Lately they sell it in cookies (chocolate cookies) and kids below 18 consume it.. one from Nigeria I forgot his name (he is also facing the firing squad end of April) he even organise his drug from prison.. come on James, what will you do if yr country has this situation. Like I said in my previous comment, things are worst every year, and dont forget, previously government of Indonesia gave a lot mercy to drug dealer

        May 9, 2015
      • Mel, it’s good that you brought up the drug addiction figures and the number of deaths that Jokowi has quoted so far. Because if it were my country, I would check and verify those sources. Are they reliable? Where is the evidence for those statistics? Unfortunately I have serious doubts about the truth of Jokowi’s claims:

        If drug dealers are still able to carry on their activities behind bars, what does that say about the strength of the prison system, or the integrity of its employees? If it were my country, I would choose to tackle corruption in law enforcement. I just don’t think that killing people as a deterrent is morally justified.

        May 9, 2015
      • There are 3 boys dead close to my village James. I met one of them before passes away.. I can see how skinny he is and all skin full of cuts. 3 boys in 1 small village, can you imagine how many in big town?.
        yes there is a mooron, corrupt people in law enforcement or officer/watch guard. They were moved to prison already (detained).. the system is evaluated after finding the prisoner still able to organized his drug operations from the jail..

        May 10, 2015
      • Mel, I think I made myself clear in my previous comment that not supporting the death penalty doesn’t mean that I believe those convicts should have been released either. I believe in giving convicts a chance to rehabilitate themselves in prison. In the case that they are not rehabilitated, they won’t pose any threat to society either since they remain behind bars.

        May 9, 2015

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