Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected in July 2014. Hailed as a man of the people, his campaign was built on a platform of human rights. He updated Jakarta’s drainage system, kick-started health care reform, and built a reputation as a leader who implements policies based on pragmatism and common sense.
But on January 18, Jokowi placed himself in a category of his own: he became the first president of Indonesia to execute six people in one night since the country’s democratic reformation in 1998.
The people sentenced to death were people convicted of drug trafficking. Five of the six were foreigners, which prompted a swift and emphatic international outcry. Three of the countries whose citizens were among the executed recalled their ambassadors from Indonesia, and several advocacy groups condemned the executions in no uncertain terms.
The uproar is well founded—using the death penalty to solve a country’s drug problems is not a solution at all. The Community Legal Aid Institution in Jakarta, Lembaga Bantuam Hukum Masyarakat (LBHM), worked tirelessly to stop Sunday’s executions. On January 16, LBHM and the leaders of drug-user communities hand-delivered an open letter to the presidential palace.
In the letter they made it clear that Jokowi’s decision to employ the death penalty would not help alleviate Indonesia’s drug problems—in fact, it’s likely to make them worse. Since capital punishment for drug offenses was introduced in 1997, drug crimes have risen, not fallen. And those being executed aren’t the ones driving the illicit drug trade. Some of the traffickers who are sentenced to death are merely drug mules, many of them coerced into carrying the substances they were arrested with, or unaware that they were carrying them at all.
Furthermore, executing people used as drug mules only exacerbates the vulnerability of drug users, because when the state executes a drug mule, kingpins must find a new one. These new traffickers are consequently pulled further away from health services, harm reduction programs, and support—the very mechanisms that could help them reclaim their lives from addiction.
Despite all this evidence to the contrary, Jokowi has said that the executions represent his government’s firm commitment to the fight against drugs, and that more executions will follow. In addition, he’s vowed not to grant clemency to any of the 64 convicted traffickers on death row, even though a blanket rejection of clemency is a violation of Indonesia’s commitment under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. A blanket rejection of clemency also breaches the core principle of criminal law, which requires every case to be considered on its individual merits.
Political observers have speculated that Jokowi’s hard line on executions—out of step with his relatively progressive agenda—is intended to satiate conservative elements of his government. If that’s truly the case, it represents a stunning display of opportunism, as people are literally sacrificed in the name of political maneuvering.
LBHM’s campaign is aligned with the UN Human Rights Committee, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. All have stated that executions for drug offences are in violation of international human rights law.
We at LBHM feel the weight of these threatened executions acutely. Since 2008, we have assisted Francis (not his real name), a Nigerian citizen sentenced to death for possession of heroin. Francis has exhausted all his legal avenues of appeal and is relying on presidential clemency for his life—a hope that appears dim for those convicted under the Jokowi administration.