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Winning a battle, losing the war

Drug users in Indonesia are made vulnerable by current drug laws


Nick Perry

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   One of around 40 clients receiving daily treatment at Tebet Methadone Clinic, South Jakarta
   Patrick Tombola

Merry Christina was 26 years old when she and her boyfriend were arrested by police while injecting heroin in a South Jakarta slum. Taken to the district police station, the officers cut Merry a deal: she could have her drugs back and leave the prison without charge if she agreed to ‘service them sexually’. Facing a serious prison sentence if she refused, and struggling with her decade-long heroin addiction, Merry was left with little choice.

She agreed to their proposition and the officers returned her drugs. She was then blindfolded and repeatedly raped and physically abused by several officers over a five day period at the station. At the same time, her boyfriend was beaten and tortured in a separate cell. When the ordeal was over Merry and her boyfriend were released without charge.

‘It is widely known among drug-using communities that if you are caught by police and are a woman,’ said Merry, now an NGO worker staying clean through a methadone program, ‘you can just sexually satisfy the officers and there is no need for you to seek legal counsel or face punishment.’ Merry’s experience is one shared by many drug users in Indonesia. Organisations advocating on behalf of drug users in Indonesia have been lobbying for the laws about drug use to be changed; however, they have faced a government that is reluctant to see drug users as victims who need help.

Torture and extortion

The Indonesian government has long claimed to be fighting a ‘war on drugs’. However, since 2006 the number of people abusing substances in Indonesia has risen almost six-fold to 3.2 million. According to a report presented by the Indonesian Coalition for Drug Policy Reform (ICDPR) there has been a correlating spike in human rights abuse cases and social discrimination against drug users nationwide.

The ICDPR report draws together years of research conducted across drug-using communities in nine major cities in Indonesia. The research was carried out by the NGO Stigma Foundation (Stigma) and the Law Faculty and HIV/AIDS Research Centre at Atma Jaya University, as well as by the Community Legal Aid Institute. Alarmingly, it found that almost all respondents claimed to have been extorted for money, physically or sexually abused, or tortured by police officers while being detained on drug offences.

‘Even though Indonesia has signed an international ratification against torture, the practice among the police force against drug users is very common, and on the rise,’ said Asmin Fransiska, lecturer on International Human Rights and Law at Atma Jaya University and co-founder of the ICDPR.

‘Women in particular face sexual abuse at the hands of police officers. When they are taken to the police station, they are often forced to strip naked in front of other officers or are simply raped with the threat of imprisonment if they do not agree.’

Testimonies from hundreds of drug users interviewed for the report paint a similarly horrific picture: blindfolded beatings, cigarettes put out on bare flesh, electrocutions and threats of murder. The penalty for possession of a single gram of heroin is currently 15 years which makes extortion another common practice used by police. ‘The common custom is for police to ask how much money you are willing to pay, or what you are willing to do, in order for them to change the offence they arrested you for,’ Fransiska said.

Police blackmail users for information about other users and dealers and reward them with high-quality heroin

Jarot, a former long term heroin user, has been imprisoned three times in the past for heroin possession. After serving time in an overcrowded Jakarta prison, where more than half the inmates are drug addicts and almost ten per cent leave having been infected with HIV, he was willing to do anything to avoid another prison sentence. ‘Police blackmail users for information about other users and dealers and reward them with high-quality heroin,’ Jarot said. ‘They then become cepu [spy].’

Many of the most impoverished drug users are vulnerable to this informal - and highly illegal - relationship with police officers. They lack the cash to bribe themselves out of their convictions and they have an overwhelming addiction to feed. According to Anto Suwanto, Field Coordinator at Stigma, cepu are often the target of reprisal attacks from dealers and other users, and are sometimes even murdered for their apparent betrayals. When asked if he had ever worked as a cepu for the police, Jarot turned away, looking down. After a few moments, he quietly answered, ‘Yes’.

Self-inflicted criminals

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   Yanto, a drug user and father of twins, prepares his dose of heroin
   in East Jakarta slum district of Kota Bambu Selatan
   Patrick Tombola

The current laws controlling illicit drugs in Indonesia are Law No. 5/1997 on Psychotropics and Law No. 22/1997 on Narcotics. Both laws were introduced under the dictatorial New Order regime but were not repealed or even altered until very recently. The meanings embedded in these laws and the ways they have been implemented have created problems for drug users.

There is little distinction made between a drug user and a drug dealer under article 78 of the Narcotics Law. The article makes both criminals deserving severe punishment. According to legal principles there must be a victim and an offender in a crime. However, in this situation, the drug user plays both roles in the offense.

This presents something of a conundrum to lawyers fighting for drug users to be treated as addicts who require help, rather than as prisoners requiring lengthy prison terms. The fact that the World Health Organization considers drug use a ‘chronic relapsing brain disease’ is not taken into consideration by judges and lawmakers, explained Professor Irwanto, Chair of the Institute for Research and Community Services at Atma Jaya University. ‘The strange thing is, the law is written as such that the crime has no victim, except oneself. It is like a self-inflicted crime,’ Irwanto said.

While Indonesia has taken a hardline stance on drugs for some time, often punishing traffickers with death, a sudden surge in funding for law enforcement in recent years has seen drug users facing an increasing threat of abuse and discrimination. Between 2000 and 2004, drugs were not listed by the government as a major issue to be dealt with, and were discussed in terms of welfare and protecting the youth. However, since 2005, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has deemed narcotic abuse a serious national problem that threatens security as well as religious and moral values.

‘Since 2006, the government has allocated 200 billion rupiah to enforcing the Narcotics Law, which has only resulted in an increase in the deaths of drug users, the number of HIV/AIDS cases and the arrests of drug users,’ said Rido Triawan, a Stigma advocate heavily involved with ICDPR. ‘Data shows that last year, many more people were arrested for using drugs, but only two per cent of the total figure were actually arrested for dealing.’

Reform on the horizon, for better or for worse

Indonesia is currently at a crossroads with its domestic drug policy. With parliament having resumed following the legislative elections on 9 April 2009, soon the newly-elected People’s Representative Council will recommence deliberating an amendment to the National Narcotics Law. This amendment was first submitted for consideration in 2005 by the Department of Law and Human Rights. Groups such as the ICDPR initially thought that this amendment would follow global trends by softening the ‘war on drugs’ ideology and shifting toward a more humane approach toward drug users. In actual fact, if this amendment is passed the situation for drug users and the state of human rights in Indonesia will almost certainly become worse.

Ending the criminalisation of drug use is the linchpin of the ICDPR’s alternative approach to drug policy in Indonesia. To ICDPR members’ dismay, neither decriminalisation nor a raft of other crucial reforms were addressed in the proposed amendment to the Narcotics Law. If anything, this amendment will upgrade the criminal status of drug users and equip police with new powers to deal with them.

Currently, a user can be legally detained for a maximum 24 hours, whereas the amendment will extend that detention to 72 hours. This not only increases the likelihood and opportunity for abuse to occur, it also throws potentially vulnerable addicts into an already overcrowded prison system rife with drug abuse, HIV/AIDS and violence.

Another issue in prison is intimidation, explained Fransiska. Human rights lawyers are finding it increasingly difficult to defend users accused of possession because police pressure them into believing that if they fight the charges, they will receive a harsher sentence.

‘Sometimes they [drug users] will express interest in seeing a lawyer, but then after a night in prison, they suddenly change their mind. They claim they never wanted a lawyer, or they don’t know you, or that you are lying,’ Fransiska said. ‘Police are intimidating users and interfering with their proper legal rights.’

‘Women are particularly reluctant to discuss their abuse, because they are afraid both society and their families will stigmatise them and be ashamed of the sexual abuse they have suffered,’ Fransiska said.

After Sekar Wulan Sari was arrested for heroin possession, police officers threatened to sexually assault her if her boyfriend did not return with a bribe of several million rupiah for her release. After being exiled from her family, and following a lengthy rehabilitation process, Wulan helped form the Stigma Foundation. She understands first hand the risks posed by harsh articles in the amendment, particularly those that encourage the public to identify drug users in their neighbourhoods and families.

‘Not only are drug users being criminalised by the state, but now families and society are being threatened. Under the amendment, if you are aware of a drug user in your area or in your family and don’t report them to police, you could face court or prison,’ Wulan said. According to Fransiska, the responsibility for resolving drug issues should not be forced upon the community, particularly when law enforcement agencies are simply ‘incapable of carrying out their duties'.

After Sekar Wulan Sari was arrested for heroin possession, police officers threatened to sexually assault her if her boyfriend did not return with a bribe of several million rupiah for her release

The planned reform has thrust the death penalty for drug offences back into the limelight. If passed, the maximum penalty for possession of one gram of heroin will be increased from 15 years prison to death, providing police with even greater ammunition to leverage drug users for money and gratification.

Lobbying for a black campaign

ICDPR members admit that tackling law reform in Indonesia is complicated and overwhelming, but they do not ‘view laws as being almost untouchable’, as Fransiska claims many organisations continue to do. The ICDPR have lobbied the government through international mechanisms as well as by directly targeting politicians with mixed results.

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs met in Vienna on 11 March 2009 to review the effectiveness of the last decade of international drug policy. The Indonesian government sent a delegation of Health, Education, Security and National Narcotic Agency (BNN) representatives who signed an international ‘Political Declaration’ on narcotics. The ICDPR sent its report to Vienna as a means of lobbying international states, particularly progressive European countries which provide funding to Indonesia, to encourage the government to change its human rights and drugs policy. The UN system tends not to cast judgements on particular governments, so the Indonesian delegation essentially signed the agreement without ever being directly addressed about its own domestic policy.

‘It seems the meeting [in Vienna] was fairly non-transparent,’ said Professor Irwanto, ‘with Indonesia being represented by people who may not have necessarily understood the real issue of drug abuse.’

When coalition members met with parliamentarians on 10 December last year for International Human Rights Day, they were surprised to learn that many politicians believed drug users were victims and supported, in theory, a shift toward drug policies that focused on decriminalising drug use. But lobbying for support from legislative candidates in the lead up to the general elections was virtually impossible as being seen as being soft on drugs remains a potential source of ‘black campaigns against their re-election efforts’, Fransiska said.

Even though the amendment has not yet been passed, the ICDPR is pessimistic about its chances of being rejected by the incoming parliament. Stigma is focusing its attention on younger candidates linked to NGOs in the hope that future legislators will have a fresh perspective about the current perpetual cycle of targeting drug users and ignoring human rights abuses.

‘After we know who the legislative members are, we will approach them in order to get support for our work,’ said Ricky Gunawan, program director at the Community Legal Aid Institute, after the recent elections.

With newly-elected legislators to take their seats in the coming months, and with the ICDPR planning to meet once again with representatives from the Indonesian Human Rights Commission, National AIDS Commission, Supreme Court and Ministry of Health, their overarching concern now is that many of the steps toward reform made in past months by advocates may have been in vain.     ii

Nick Perry (perrynicke@gmail.com) is currently living in Indonesia where he is the subeditor on the national news desk at the Jakarta Post newspaper. Nick holds a Bachelor in Communications (Journalism) degree from the University of Technology, Sydney, and regularly submits articles for publications both in Indonesia and abroad.


Inside Indonesia 96: Apr-Jun 2009



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