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Capital punishment in Indonesia

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezJanuary 20, 2015

Indonesia has ignored last-minute appeals by foreign leaders and executed six people convicted of drug trafficking. Analyst Yohanes Sulaiman tells DW President Jokowi is trying to convey the image of a "decisive leader."

Indonesischer Präsident Joko Jokowi Widodo
Image: Reuters

Brazil and the Netherlands recalled their ambassadors from Indonesia on January 18 after Jakarta ignored their pleas and executed two of their citizens by firing squad along with four other drug offenders from Vietnam, Malawi, Nigeria and Indonesia. The six were the first people executed under new Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who has disappointed rights activists by voicing support for capital punishment.

President Jokowi defended the executions, saying those convicted of drug trafficking will not receive a presidential pardon since Indonesia is facing an "emergency" over drug use. Jakarta had an unofficial four-year moratorium on executions until 2013, when five people were put before the firing squad. There were no executions last year.

In a DW interview, Indonesia analyst Yohanes Sulaiman says President Jokowi appears to have been under no apparent pressure to restart executions and that he is simply trying to convey the image of being a decisive leader in a country where there seems to be public support for the death penalty.

DW: Why does Indonesia have such a strong policy against drug traffickers?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Drug abuse is a big problem in Indonesia. Each year the number of addicts is increasing. Since it is believed that the majority of drugs in Indonesia are imported, the government believes that by imposing harsh punishment on traffickers, they could reduce or halt the importation of drugs.

Yohanes Sulaiman Juniorprofessor Universität Indonesien
'Overt international pressure to stop the executions will backfire spectacularly,' says SulaimanImage: privat

Why has President Joko Widodo decided to stick to the country's policy of executing drug offenders?

There is actually no overt pressure from either the party, the media, or the public. However, while there are a lot of discussions on death penalty, generally the public and media in Indonesia are clamoring for the death penalty to be expanded to people engaged in corruption.

A quick glimpse of the media in the past couple of years reveals that there have been few discussions on the death penalty being imposed on drug traffickers - except during a couple of occasions when there were new developments such as the release of Schapelle Corby, an Australian who was convicted and imprisoned for drug smuggling. So the sudden restart of executions comes out of the blue.

My guess is that President Jokowi wants to show "results" and his "decisiveness" especially in the first 100 days of his administration. Keep in mind that the issue of "being decisive" has hobbled Jokowi since the election campaigning, where the opposition kept claiming that he was and would be a very weak leader.

It seems to me that burning ships engaged in illegal fishing and re-imposing the death penalty are things that he could do to stress and buttress the idea that he is a strong, decisive leader, while giving him a huge boost in popularity. In fact, if he stops executions now, he could actually lose a huge amount of prestige and popularity. The death penalty genie is already out of the bottle.

How do you think the latest executions will affect Indonesia's relations with nations such as Brazil or the Netherlands?

I don't see any long-term damage in ties between Indonesia and the Netherlands. Indonesia is one of the most important countries in Southeast Asia and, one could argue, even in the world, thanks to its demographic and geostrategic position. The Dutch have a strong economic relationship with Indonesia - the Netherlands is one of the five main investors in Indonesia. The situation is similar with Brazil, with bilateral trade booming.

Marco Archer Cardoso Moreira, der wegen Drogenschmuggels in Indonesien hingerichtet werden soll
Sulaiman: 'The death penalty is popular in Indonesia'Image: AFP/Getty Images/B. Ismoyo

Furthermore, both Netherlands and Brazil have close political ties with the country. It is therefore very doubtful that both countries would risk this strong relationship. So while there will be a short-term dip in relations, I don't think this will have a strong impact in the long run.

What about the reactions from human rights groups?

The human rights groups are obviously disappointed, considering many believed that Jokowi would have much better track record in terms of human rights than his electoral rival Prabowo Subianto, who was suspected of being involved in human rights abuses back during the era of Indonesian strongman Suharto.

However, the main question is: Who voted for Jokowi? As already mentioned, the death penalty is popular in Indonesia even though you can argue that its effectiveness is overrated and it is not applied fairly.

What's important is to convey the image that you have a decisive president willing to impose the death penalty on those who are bent on poisoning the minds of the youths with drugs. That could be the image that wins the next election - or shows at least that the president is doing something in the first 100 days of his administration.

Will diplomatic appeals help prevent other executions?

It is a difficult question to answer because there are plenty of factors that might influence this. Obviously, overt international pressure, I think, will backfire spectacularly. The last thing Jokowi wants to have is the image of him kowtowing to foreign governments and pardoning drug smugglers on the death row.

The opposition and the media would have a field day condemning the government and that also runs counter to the image that Jokowi wants to cultivate, which is the image of him as a "decisive leader" who wants Indonesia to be respected abroad.

Indonesien Hinrichtung Drogenhändler Transport Polizei 17.01.2015
Sulaiman: 'The government believes it could halt the importation of drugs by imposing harsh punishment on traffickers'Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Wagino

I think diplomatic appeals, done quietly and with some incentives behind it, could prevent the executions. The death penalty genie is already out of the bottle, so there's no way that Jokowi could declare that he would stop the executions.

But, he could use the oldest trick in the book: just do nothing and people will forget about it. In order to do that, though, the Australians should put something on the table in exchange for another moratorium on the death penalty. That might work, but it has to be done very quietly.

Yohanes Sulaiman is Lecturer in International Relations and Political Science at the Indonesian Defense University.