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Bali Nine duo - Jokowi's growing predicament

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has so far refused to pardon drug convicts on death row, saying he intends to show no mercy in his war on drugs. But his strong stance also risks further straining ties with key partners.

The death penalty is a controversial punishment that sparks highly emotive debates, even when a country imposes the sentence on its own citizens. And it is difficult to underestimate the hue and cry capital punishment generates when it involves foreign nationals. Such situations have the potential to jeopardize ties between nations and pose significant challenges to their leaders.

Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is currently facing such a quagmire involving a drug-trafficking group commonly known as the "Bali Nine," consisting of eight men and one woman. They were apprehended by Indonesian authorities in April 2005 in Bali, Indonesia, for trying to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin from the Southeast Asian nation to Australia.

Although all nine were convicted on drug-smuggling charges in February 2006, two of them - alleged ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran - were sentenced to death. Numerous appeals by the two Australian nationals were rejected by the courts, leaving them with one last option: a presidential pardon. However, President Jokowi denied their appeal for clemency in January, setting the stage for their execution by firing squad.

Controversial stance

The move has sparked international criticism, with rights groups slamming Jokowi's decision as a "regressive step." This is, however, not the first time the Indonesian leader has refused to grant clemency to convicted drug offenders.

Indonesien Wahlkampf Joko Widodo 01.07.2014

Jokowi says Indonesia is facing an 'emergency' over drug use

In January, Brazil and the Netherlands recalled their ambassadors after Jakarta ignored their pleas and executed two of their citizens along with four other drug traffickers from Indonesia, Vietnam, Malawi and Nigeria. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff even refused to accept the credentials of the Indonesian ambassador to demonstrate her anger at the execution. The six were the first people executed under Jokowi, who defended the move, saying Indonesia is facing an "emergency" over drug use.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Southeast Asian nation is being used as a major hub for drug trafficking 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.

It is estimated that there were up to 4.7 million drug users in Indonesia in 2011. About 1.2 million of them used crystalline methamphetamine and 950,000 consumed ecstasy, said the UNODC.

But Jokowi's tough stance on drug traffickers also threatens to impact Indonesia's relations with Australia, where the planned executions of Chan and Sukumaran have caused uproar as reflected in campaigns such as the one calling on Australians to boycott traveling to the Indonesian island of Bali, a popular tourist destination.

The controversy over the death penalty follows a gradual deterioration in bilateral political ties over the past two years. A major crisis unfolded when documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden indicated that Australia may have conducted electronic surveillance of senior Indonesian government officials, including then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

There have also been other irritants to the relationship, including incursions by Australian naval and coast guard vessels into Indonesian territorial waters while undertaking operations to prevent boats carrying asylum seekers from entering Australia. Against this backdrop, the row over the fate of the Bali Nine duo has become the latest issue of contention between the two nations.

Recently, all of Australia's living former prime ministers appealed to Jakarta to spare the lives of the two men on death row. The conservative government of PM Tony Abbott, which has vehemently opposed the verdicts, has been pulling out all stops to make Jokowi reconsider his stance.

Symbolbild Drogenschmuggel

There were up to 4.7 million drug users in Indonesia in 2011, according to UN estimates

Unhelpful tactics

Last week, Canberra even reminded Indonesia of its donation of relief funds. After the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, the Australian armed forces provided assistance in emergency relief operations to help the Indonesian military, and Canberra provided around one billion AUD in disaster relief aid.

Experts, however, say while they may draw huge media attention, these strategies are unlikely to work in this case. In a recent publication by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), executive director Peter Jennings argues that Australian threats of economic sanctions, or of withdrawing its ambassador and diplomatic staff, or making unfavorable comment about Indonesia in the international media would be deeply counterproductive in Indonesia.

"Threats of negative Australian actions will only strengthen Indonesian resolve and lead to tit-for-tat responses. Australia has seldom achieved positive results by attacking behavior we disliked," the ASPI director said. Moreover, 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.

Yohanes Sulaiman, lecturer in International Relations and Political Science at the Indonesian Defense University, also sees such an approach as counterproductive. "Abbott's argument that Indonesia should cancel the death penalty because Australia used to help Indonesia in Aceh is a disastrous move in terms of public relations.

It turns the spat from being about a crime or human rights issue into full-blown uber-nationalism, and it's very unhelpful to resolve the issue," he stressed.

This view is shared by Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security. Abuza argues that many Indonesians feel that Australia is trying to bully Indonesia, and that there are many nationalists who do not want to see the country cave in to foreign pressure.

The expert pointed to a recent poll which found that over 60 percent of Indonesians support the death penalty for drug traffickers. "It is therefore highly unlikely that Jokowi will give into Australian pressure," the analyst told DW.

On February 24, the Indonesian president reacted, saying the planned execution of 11 convicts on death row, would not be delayed, warning foreign countries not to intervene in his government's right to use capital punishment.

"The first thing I need to say firmly is that there shouldn't be any intervention towards the death penalty because it is our sovereign right to exercise our law," said Jokowi, adding that the Brazilian and French presidents had recently made calls to him. But he made no mention of Australia.

What's at stake

But despite the domestic clamor for executions, there are potentially further-reaching implications that might have a bearing on Jokowi's final decision. The most important of which would be a further deterioration in ties with Canberra.

Despite the high-level political spats of the past two years, there is a great deal of ongoing cooperation at working level between the Australian and Indonesian governments in many areas of public administration, including police and customs, as Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific Chief Economist at the analytics firm IHS, told DW.

"In addition to police and military co-operation, Australia is one of Indonesia's key economic partners, with bilateral trade and investment reaching 15 billion AUD in 2013," said Biswas. "There is also an estimated cumulative investment of 11 billion AUD in Indonesia by Australian companies in mining, manufacturing and infrastructure projects."

Bilateral trade in services is also growing in importance, as Biswas pointed out. "Thousands of Indonesians study at Australian universities and institutes each year and there is also a large flow of Australian tourists to Indonesia," said the economist.

In this context, Jokowi would be hard-pressed to ignore the economic cost of going ahead with the executions, particularly after coming to power on a pledge to reinvigorate the Indonesian economy. To jump start growth, Jokowi needs plenty of foreign direct investment and his development agenda "seems to be distracted by all the ruckus about the death penalty," Sulaiman underlined.

Moreover, the expert noted, the president would have a bigger boost to his popularity should he act decisively on other major issues afflicting the country such as the power struggle between various organs of his administration.

A low-profile solution?

So what could Canberra offer Jokowi to make him reconsider? ASPI director Jennings argues that one possibility would be to offer Jakarta positive inducement in a non-public way aimed at securing clemency.

Indonesien Hinrichtung Drogenhändler Transport Polizei 17.01.2015

Indonesia has some of the toughest drug laws in the world

This approach could include consular assistance with Indonesia's efforts to stop its citizens being subjected to the death penalty around the world, deepening bilateral intelligence cooperation, and offering third-party advocacy to support Indonesian ambitions for greater influence in multilateral forums. But in the end: "Only Widodo could judge if such inducements meet an Indonesian cost–benefit analysis," said Jennings.

Given that backing down now would potentially weaken the president, Sulaiman argues that the best way for Jokowi to solve this quandary is to simply postpone the execution, hoping that people's attention starts to go elsewhere, thus giving himself time to reassess the situation.

Last week, hopes were raised following Indonesia's decision to postpone the execution by up to a month, backtracking on an earlier stance to put the two convicts to death by the end of February. But what many ask themselves now is how long will this really last. Indonesian authorities insist they will proceed with the executions despite this delay.