Jun 20, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Drugs and the death penalty

Published: Oct 15, 2019

Puri Kencana Putri & Aghniadi

In 2018 there were 39 new death sentences for drug-related offences in Indonesia, accounting for a staggering 81 per cent of all new death sentences. By comparison, only 17 per cent were for murder, and the remaining 2 per cent were for terrorism.

The popular-but-hard-line ‘war on drugs’ has been vociferously condemned by the international community. But the Indonesian government remains committed to it, motivated in a large part by a moral panic around a national ‘narcotics emergency’ which has resulted from data now known to be dodgy.

Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency has claimed, for example, that there are around 4.5 million people in the country in need of rehabilitation for their drug use at any one time, but this figure is in fact a projection of the total number of people in Indonesia who have used drugs – even if only a few times ever – not just those unable to manage their drug use.

More than 30 people die from drug-related causes every day in Indonesia, and as part of the war on drugs the government has also restored the death penalty and executed 18 drug traffickers since 2015, including 15 foreigners – eight from Nigeria, two each from Australia and Brazil, and one from each of Malawi, the Netherlands and Vietnam.

Fair trials for traffickers

Meanwhile, it is common knowledge that some law enforcers in Indonesia rely on questionable legal grounds and do not always follow procedure. The legal process is at risk of being marred by arbitrary or discriminative practices, and law enforcers can, of course, make mistakes, but the death penalty cannot be reversed, unlike other severe punishments.

A sleuth of executions in 2015 drew attention to how Indonesia’s legal system is not well-equipped to make sure criminal proceedings against drug users and traffickers are fair. On 29 April of that year 43-year-old Rodrigo Gularte from Brazil was executed after being convicted of smuggling cocaine into Indonesia back in 2004. But his lawyers say that his case should never have gone to trial in the first place because, as Amnesty International reported, he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Rodrigo had lived with this mental illness from the age of 16, and throughout the 10 years he waited on death row in Indonesia’s prison system, his illness was not recognised. Indonesia’s penal code ought to prevent people with mental illnesses like Rodrigo from ever standing trial. But the revelation was not enough to save him from the firing squad.

Body of the executed drug convict from Brazil, Rodrigo Gularte, at the Saint Carolus Funeral Home [TEMPO/Aditia Noviansyah]

In a more fortunate case, 30-year-old Mary Jane Veloso from the Philippines avoided execution at the eleventh hour. She had been working in Malaysia as a domestic servant but was convicted of carrying drugs on her first visit to Indonesia back in 2010. Since then Mary Jane has languished in an Indonesian prison on death row without much support even from the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta. Her family in the Philippines was never informed about her case, and it has since come to light that the Indonesian police did not even provide her with a translator so she could properly defend herself. Her planned execution in 2015 was only stayed after the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, provided evidence that Mary Jane had been manipulated into carrying the contraband.

Keeping the death penalty?

The Draft Criminal Code proposes to change things for the worse. One severe proposal is that the death penalty be made final, meaning that the president would not have authority to grant clemency. But the Indonesian government seems to have backtracked, asking instead that any death sentence be able to be commuted to life imprisonment for good behaviour on death row, and that the death penalty be re-categorised as an ‘alternative punishment’. Lawmakers from both the governing coalition and the opposition admit that the death penalty has been an ineffective deterrent, particularly for drug-related crime, as the number of cases has risen rather than fallen.

The current war on drugs can only be won if the Indonesian government shifts its focus from punishment and the disproven ‘deterrent’ of the death penalty to the important battle against the underlying causes of drug use. At the heart of the new approach, there needs to be a greater commitment to protecting the human rights of everyone, including drug traffickers and drug users who have borne the brunt of Indonesia’s punitive war on drugs.

Puri Kencana Putri (puri.kencanaputri@amnesty.id) is campaign manager at Amnesty International Indonesia.

Aghniadi (aghniadi.adi@amnesty.id) is a campaigner at Amnesty International Indonesia. 


Inside Indonesia 137: Jul-Sep 2019

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