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Asia

Australians 'anguished and offended' over Indonesia executions

Despite international outcry and pleas for mercy, Indonesia has executed one citizen and seven foreign drug traffickers. An expert on Indonesia discusses how this will impact its foreign ties, especially with Australia.

After rejecting last-ditch pleas from around the world for clemency, Indonesia

executed eight drug traffickers

by firing squad on the island of Nusakambangan in the early morning hours of Wednesday, April 29. Among them were Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan as well as nationals from Brazil, Nigeria and one Indonesian. A woman from the Philippines, however, was granted a last-minute reprieve as new evidence in her case reportedly emerged.

The death penalties had been condemned by the United Nations, and strained ties between Jakarta and Canberra, which had warned of consequences. The incident follows the execution of six other drug traffickers in January, which prompted Brazil and the Netherlands to recall their respective ambassadors from Indonesia.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has defended his tough stance against convicted drug traffickers, saying they would not receive a presidential pardon since Indonesia is facing an "emergency" over drug use. Some 60 convicts are believed to be on death row in Indonesia for drug-related crimes. Around half of them are foreigners. Jakarta had an unofficial four-year moratorium on executions until 2013. There were no executions in 2014.

Indonesian lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis (R) displays recent paintings done in prison by Australian drug convict and death row prisoner Myuran Sukumaran at the Nusakambangan port in Cilacap across from the Nusakambangan maximum security prison island on April 28, 2015 (Photo: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Connelly: 'Polls indicate most Indonesians support the death penalty for drug trafficking'

In a DW interview, Aaron Connelly, an Indonesia expert at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, talks about the reasons behind Indonesia's stance on applying capital punishment and says that although Australia has decided to recall its ambassador from Indonesia and could take stronger measures, Canberra will hesitate before withdrawing cooperation that benefits both countries.

DW: Australia had repeatedly pleaded to President Widodo to spare the lives of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. How is Canberra likely to react to the executions?

Aaron Connelly: The Australian Government has decided to recall its ambassador to Jakarta - a step that it has never taken with regard to Indonesia, despite a history of regular bilateral crises. At a lower level, it seems likely that police cooperation between Australia and Indonesia may suffer, because Australian police provided the intelligence that led to the arrests of the so-called Bali 9.

Beyond those immediate steps, it is hard to say how Australia will react. Before today, only six Australian citizens had been executed by a foreign court - four of them for drug trafficking offenses in Malaysia and Singapore - though those cases did not take place under the scrutiny of today's media environment.

They were also not accompanied by the display of strident militarism and nationalism that accompanied the transfer back in February of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from Bali, where they had been held since 2005, to Nusakambangan, where they were executed overnight. That display added insult to injury, and is likely to lead to a stronger Australian reaction.

That said, the relationship with Jakarta remains important to Australia for reasons of security, and it is in Australian interests to ensure the relationship gets back on firmer footing in the medium to long term.

How strongly will this incident affect Australian-Indonesian ties, particularly with regard to President Widodo, in the short and midterm?

The executions have made President Widodo a manifestly unpopular figure in Australia. It is difficult to tell how long that feeling will linger. While Australians are genuinely anguished at the executions of their compatriots and offended by the manner in which the process that led to their deaths was conducted, their leaders also understand the importance of the relationship for geopolitical and security reasons, and will hesitate before withdrawing cooperation that benefits both countries.

The two Australians were among eight prisoners who were executed, including nationals from Brazil, Nigeria, and one Indonesian. How are these executions likely to affect Indonesia's ties with these countries?

When Indonesia executed six foreigners in January, including a Dutchman, a Brazilian, and a Nigerian, the first two withdrew their ambassador. Brazil later refused to accept the credentials of the incoming Indonesian ambassador. It is possible that Indonesia's ties with Brazil could be further damaged by the execution of another Brazilian citizen. Brazil and Indonesia are engaged in an array of cooperation in the defense and resources sector, which could be put at risk by an escalatory spiral of further diplomatic slights.

Why did President Widodo decide to take such a strong stance on this issue?

Some analysts of Indonesian politics have argued that Jokowi sought to use the executions to assert an image of strength, to bolster his weak political position at home. While Jokowi's political position is indeed weak, I can find little evidence for that analysis beyond the circumstantial.

Rather, it seems clear to me that Jokowi sees drug abuse as a scourge on Indonesian society that must be confronted with a hardline policy. He has argued that drug use kills 50 Indonesians a day, a statistic that has been questioned by experts. He has said that he believes that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to drug traffickers, and that if he compromises in that policy, it will serve as encouragement to traffickers. When asked whether traffickers deserve mercy, he often deflects by asking if the traffickers' victims received such consideration.

It is also worth noting that Jokowi reacted strongly as foreign governments ratcheted up pressure on Jokowi to spare the lives of their citizens. There is real resentment in Indonesia at the notion that foreigners should receive special dispensation under Indonesian law. Australia caused further offense when Prime Minister Tony Abbott implied that Australia's USD 1 billion aid package following the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami should be taken into account, as it seemed to suggest that he believed Chan and Sukumaran's lives could be purchased.

What do most Indonesians think of the use of the death penalty for drug use?

Polls indicate most Indonesians support the death penalty for drug trafficking. Like Jokowi, many believe that is serves as a deterrent. Many Indonesians believe that blame for its drug problem lies primarily with traffickers, and particularly foreign traffickers, which is why you have seen the death penalty handed down more frequently to foreign traffickers than Indonesian ones.

Indonesia President candidate Joko Widodo answers questions from journalists during an inspection to Pluit Reservoir on July 22, 2014 in Jakarta, Indonesia (Photo: Oscar Siagian/Getty Images)

Connelly: 'Jokowi sought to use the executions to assert an image of strength'

If Indonesia can deter foreign traffickers from dealing drugs through the death penalty, the thinking goes, it will save the lives of hapless Indonesian victims, thereby protecting Indonesian dignity from a foreign menace. That's simplifying a bit, but there is a strongly nationalist element to much Indonesian support for death penalty for drug use.

Why was there such an international outcry over these particular executions while several other states in the world conduct such executions on a regular basis?

A few reasons. First, few countries execute such a large group of foreigners simultaneously. In fact, many aspects of the way Indonesia conducts executions - firing squads at midnight - seem designed to produce a macabre spectacle, in contrast to other countries that seek to conduct executions quietly.

Second, the executions seemed imminent for months, but the Indonesian government kept putting them off, so press attention remained on the fate of the traffickers for much longer than if the Indonesian government had not delayed. Third, the Australian press has greater international reach than the press of other countries with inmates on death row, such as Nigeria.

Indonesia's Attorney General, H.M. Prasetyo, has said that more narcotics traffickers would be executed later this year. It is my hope that international efforts to persuade Jokowi to pursue a more compassionate course will not wane should those convicts be from countries that are less connected.

Aaron L. Connelly is a Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, where he focuses on Southeast Asia and Indonesia in particular. His research interests include Indonesian politics and foreign policy, Australian-Indonesian relations, the geopolitics of Southeast Asia and the US role in the region.