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Asia

Amnesty points to 'endemic flaws' in Indonesia's justice system

Denied access to lawyers, severe beatings, forced confessions - a new AI report accuses Indonesia's justice system of "fair trial violations," and raises serious questions about the country's use of the death penalty.

Released on October 15, the report states that death row prisoners in Indonesia are routinely denied access to lawyers and coerced into confessions through severe beatings, while foreign nationals facing the death penalty have to deal with a judicial system "they hardly understand."

"The death penalty is always a human rights violation, but the numerous and serious issues with regards to how it is being applied in Indonesia makes its use all the more tragic," said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International's (AI) Southeast Asia Campaigns Director.

Titled Flawed Justice, the paper focuses on 12 cases of death row inmates who, according to the rights group, did not have proper access to legal counsel, were subjected to ill-treatment while in police custody to make them "confess," and were first brought before a judge months after their arrest.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo speaks at a joint press conference with his Singaporean counterpart after witnessing a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding agreement between both countries at the Istana presidential palace in Singapore on July 28, 2015 (Photo: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Joko Widodo has scaled up executions significantly despite international criticism

"The government might claim to be following international law to the letter, but our investigation shows the reality on the ground is very different with endemic flaws in the justice system," said Benedict, referring to "clear evidence of flagrant fair trial violations."

The drug problem

Indonesia has a history of applying capital punishment for criminal offenses. Twenty-seven people were executed between 1999 and 2014 under Indonesia's first four democratic-era presidents. But no executions were carried out between 2009 and 2012, leading many to believe the country had moved away from capital punishment.

However, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo - who took office in October 2014 - has scaled up executions significantly despite international criticism. Of the 14 people who have been sent before the firing squad this year alone, 12 were foreigners and all were convicted on drugs charges. At least 35 of the 121 death row prisoners in the country are foreigners, according to AI.

'No mercy'

Jokowi has defended the implementation of executions for drug offenses, saying those convicted of drug trafficking will not receive a presidential pardon given the country's "emergency" over drug use. "Arrest and take firm action against drug kingpins, traffickers and other big players and have no mercy," Jokowi said in June, pointing out that 4.1 million Indonesians had become "victims of drug trafficking" in 2015.

In fact, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Southeast Asian nation is being used as a major trafficking hub by transnational organized crime groups in an effort to meet current or potential demand of a large young population, and a correspondingly large Asian drug market.

Indonesia is not the only country in Southeast Asia which punishes drug traffickers with death. The same is true for Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. However, rights groups and many experts say there is no evidence that the threat of execution can work as more of a deterrent to crime than a prison sentence.

Coercion claims

AI's criticism, however, goes beyond the use of the death penalty, and points to what it views as a series of flaws in Indonesia's justice system. Referring to the 12 cases addressed in its report, the rights group says that six death row prisoners claimed they had been coerced into "confessing" to their alleged crimes, including through severe beatings at the hands of police officers in detention.

For instance, AI quotes a Pakistani national, Zulfiqar Ali, who says police kept him in a house for three days after his arrest, where he was kicked, punched and threatened with death until he eventually signed a confession. "Despite Ali detailing the torture he had endured during his trial, the judge allowed his "confession" to be used as evidence and there was no independent investigation conducted into his allegations," said the AI researchers.

Inadequate representation

There are also claims that many of these 12 prisoners were forced to wait several weeks or even months before seeing a lawyer. And there are serious doubts about the quality of legal representation afforded to those facing drugs charges.

"In one recent case, the only advice a defendant received from his lawyer was to answer 'Yes' to any questions from the investigator. In another case a death sentence was handed down due to a request by defendant's own lawyer to the judges," said the rights group.

Indonesian activists hold a protest for the death row drug traffickers to stop death penalty at outside of Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on April 28, 2015 (Photo: Agoes Rudianto/AA/ABACAPRESS.COM)

AI urges Indonesia to establish an independent body to review all death penalty cases

As for foreign death row inmates, Indonesia has been criticized for violating their rights in numerous instances by "denying them interpretation during or before trial, making them sign documents in a language they don't understand, or refusing access to consular services," according to the report.

For instance, a woman from the Philippines, whose execution has been delayed, though not commuted, reportedly had an unqualified college student serve as her translator during her court case.

And then there are highly controversial cases such as the one involving a Brazilian man who was put to death despite being diagnosed with a severe mental disability, paranoid schizophrenia.

Public support

Indonesien Todesstrafe für zwei Australier

The execution of foreign nationals, including Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, sparked an international outcry

On the other hand, the death penalty enjoys broad public support in Indonesia: "Despite the consolidation of the rule of law and democracy in the country, there has not been a concurrent decrease in support for the death penalty. My guess is the level of support has actually grown with the inculcation of Islamic values and the growth of political Islam," Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert and professor at the Washington-based National War College, told DW.

Given the recent developments, AI urged Indonesia to take a number of steps, including establishing an independent body to review all death penalty cases - with a view to commuting the death sentences - and reforming the Criminal Code to match international standards.

"Indonesia should set an example on human rights regionally. It is time to take this responsibility seriously - a first step must be to impose a moratorium on executions," said AI's Josef Benedict.