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Gordon Campbell on Indonesia’s latest round of executions

Gordon Campbell on Indonesia’s latest round of executions

To no-one’s real surprise, Indonesia has carried out its second wave of executions this year. Given the varied nationalities of the drug convicts put to death – from Africa, Australia and South America – Indonesia’s relatively new President Joko Widodo seems to have firmly turned his back on the progress that South-East Asia had been making recently on capital punishment.

Reciprocity had been a driver of those positive changes. Earlier this decade, both Malaysia and Singapore brought in law changes to reduce the scope of the death penalty, and – before Widodo arrived on the scene – Indonesia did in 2012 commute the death sentence of a drug trafficker. Reciprocity was the main reason, as the US academic Sandra Babcock pointed out in the Northwestern Law Journal :

When Malaysia’s government announced that it would likely abolish the mandatory death penalty for certain categories of drug traffickers, Law Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz explained that close to 250 Malaysians had been arrested as drug mules and sentenced to death in countries such as China: "[H]ow are we to appeal for leniency from other governments for Malaysians who are in death row in their countries when we hand out the death sentence?" Seventy-five Indonesians on Malaysia’s death row would be affected by this change in the law.

Similarly – and ironically - Indonesia had become a strong advocate for clemency in death penalty cases for its own citizens facing capital punishment in other countries. Indonesia had for instance, set up a fund to prevent the execution of Indonesian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

As human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis observed, "Indonesia does not have the right to ask for mercy for Indonesian migrant workers, to have them spared or pardoned, if we still impose that penalty in Indonesia."

Widodo’s recent actions show that for Indonesia at least, this tit for tat prospect in no longer a concern. By executing the citizens of so many different foreign nations, Widodo has all but abandoned to the same fate any Indonesian citizens who are convicted abroad of capital crimes – even though it should be noted that death penalty retentionist states didn’t figure prominently among last night’s victims. Australia, a death penalty abolitionist, had no reciprocity card to play.

In passing though, the progress made in Malaysia and Singapore – which next to Iran has had one of the highest per capita rates of execution in the world - is worth noting. As the US academic Michael Novak says, Malaysia and Singapore have defied the trend that as countries become wealthier, they are more inclined to abolish the death penalty. Despite the small but welcome improvements that Malaysia and Singapore have made, both countries still stand in striking contrast to Hong Kong which – famously – has not executed anyone since the mid 1960s. Hong Kong has consistently voted against the death penalty - even though it has much the same demographic make-up, density of population and patterns of crime as Singapore. It can be done.

Singapore has now created a more thorough review system for death penalty cases, and it did pass its Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act a couple of years ago that limited the scope of mandatory death penalties. In doing so, Singapore was also responding to public criticism that its previous death penalty regime was too harsh on drug ‘ mules’ (who are often poor migrant workers) while the drug kingpins remain beyond the reach of the authorities. This was the basis of the clemency appeal for the young Filipina drug mule, Mary Jane Veloso, who was due to be executed last night, but who was reprieved via a last minute phone call to Widodo from the Philippines President, Benigno Aquino III.

The stories of the eight drug convicts executed last night
were set out a few days ago in the Jakarta Post.

Clearly, capital punishment has once again been applied cruelly, and arbitrarily. One of the people executed last night – Rodrigo Gularte from Brazil - seems to have been mentally ill. Here’s how the Jakarta Post summarised his situation :

According to a medical examination report from the Cilacap general hospital dated Feb. 11, 2015, Gularte was confirmed as suffering from schizophrenia. Another report — a medical certificate signed by neurologist Erasto Cichon in 2004 — stated that Gularte had been suffering from cerebral dysrhythmia since 1982, causing him to commit involuntary acts.

Attorney General M. Prasetyo, however, has insisted that death row convicts suffering from mental conditions must still be executed as there are currently no specific regulations exempting them from death.

Right. So that’s OK then. Indonesia feels it must execute the mentally ill, because there’s no specific law saying that it mustn’t. Plus, there’s obviously no proportionality and fairness argument available to those condemned to death row in Indonesia. Martin Anderson, the Ghanaian who was executed last night had been convicted of having 50 grams of heroin in his possession. This was a personal use situation, not drug dealing. Here’s how badly Anderson fared with that argument :

Anderson’s legal team sought to reduce his sentence by referring to a previous case, in which Nigerian death row convict Hillary K. Chimezie, who was caught with 5.8 kg of heroin, had his sentence reduced to 12 years. Anderson’s case review was dismissed by the judges as he had already asked for clemency, meaning that he admitted his guilt.

That’s a perfect Catch 22. Once Anderson had asked for clemency that was then used against him, as the basis for denying it. ( He could only get clemency if he didn’t seek it.) Of course what Anderson was really arguing about was proportional treatment in sentencing - how can 50 grams of heroin equal death, when 5.8kg gets you only 12 years in jail ? – and was not querying his guilt per se. That distinction seems to have eluded his Indonesian judges.

This situation will arise again. Other Australians have already been sentenced to death in Indonesia. In fact, New Zealand has a number of major trading partners – China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the United States, among others – who carry out large numbers of executions. Capital punishment is a barbaric, morally abhorrent practice that is imposed unfairly. The innocent have been executed, as happened in this case in Texas where a man lost his children in a house fire. Cameron Todd Willingham was later executed for the arson-related murder of his children, on the basis of testimony by “experts” who were later shown to have totally misread the evidence of an accident, and turned it into a murder scene.

For now Indonesia, Widodo seems to be a big part of the problem. A populist politician, he seems to be responding to (a) domestic support for the death penalty and (b) public resentment at criticism of Indonesia by foreign governments. In fact, the popular appeal of the death penalty is probably overstated. As Michael Novak pointed out, while 80% of Singaporeans say they support the death penalty, that support slips below 50% when the question is framed as to whether it should be mandatory for specific offences.

The current sensitivity of Indonesia to foreign criticism is certainly intense :

….A senior government official lashed out on Saturday at foreign governments for pleading for their citizens to be spared execution. Attorney General M. Prasetyo specifically targeted French President Francois Hollande, who earlier said that the execution of [French citizen Serge] Atlaoui for drug offenses could damage ties between the nations.

“It is not appropriate for a president to say things like that. Every government must respect the law applied by other countries,” Prasetyo told reporters on Saturday.

Well no, actually – the rest of the world is under no obligation to respect laws and legal practices in Indonesia that breach international norms of civilised behaviour. It is unfortunate that Indonesia seems to be so insecure that it cannot tolerate criticism of any sort. That doesn’t mean we should stop criticising it.

Darkness Before Noon

On a morning of grim news, here’s a dark techno track that fits the general mood. Lakker are an electronic duo (Dara Smith and Ian McDonnell) from Dublin, now based in Berlin. “Pylon” is all hovering menace and alien foreboding.. and is from their album Tundra, due to drop in mid-May. ( )


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