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In Indonesia, divided opinions on death penalty

As executions loom, President Widodo may have little to gain, a lot to lose, by showing mercy for drug convicts

In Indonesia, divided opinions on death penalty

Australians Andrew Chan (center, wearing glasses) and Myuran Sukumaran (right), the ringleaders of the 'Bali Nine' drug ring, are escorted by police to court for their trial in Denpasar, on Bali island, in February 2006 (AFP Photo/Jewel Samad)


Published: March 05, 2015 05:53 AM GMT

Updated: April 24, 2015 04:55 PM GMT

As Indonesia’s government pushes forward with the planned executions of convicted drug smugglers, including two Australians, there are also sharply differing opinions on capital punishment among the public.

On the streets of the capital, Jakarta, some residents interviewed by ucanews.com offered support for President Joko Widodo’s tough stance against leniency for drug criminals, while others believed Indonesia’s renewed pursuit of capital punishment reflected poorly on his administration.

“I support the death penalty,” said Sukirman, a 43-year-old food seller in central Jakarta.

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Sukirman, who uses a single name, said a friend’s son died of an accidental drug overdose.

“He was just 20 years old,” said the father of three teenagers. “Because of drugs, he died at a very young age.”

Eeng, 56, sells chips at a traditional market in Jakarta. She believes drug users cause problems for their families and friends.

“What they do is too risky,” said Eeng, who also uses one name. “So it’s okay if drug smugglers are sentenced to death.”

Like many who support the death penalty here, 26-year-old Riska Martina Sitepu believes the severity of the punishment serves as a deterrent to would-be drug offenders.

“Drug smugglers deserve the death penalty,” said the office worker. “Life imprisonment doesn’t suit them.”

She said Widodo’s stance on the death penalty, so far refusing to offer clemency to convicted drug offenders since taking office last year, is the right move. Even if someone in her own family was facing the death penalty for drug crimes, she said, she would agree with it.

“Those drug convicts on death row have destroyed the lives of so many people,” she said.

Other Indonesians, however, believe capital punishment is too harsh a penalty for convicted drug smugglers.

“The death penalty is inhumane. I prefer life imprisonment,” said Fransiska Happy, a 36-year-old housewife.

Sigit Wibowo, a 27-year-old teacher, said he believes the death penalty is wrong in all cases.

“No one has the right to take away someone’s life, no matter what,” he said.

For 24-year-old student Bernadina Cisasiandri Wersun, capital punishment ignores the possibility that people convicted of drug crimes can reform.

“Why doesn’t the government give them a more humane punishment, like life imprisonment? My point is to give people the time to change,” she said. “I believe that they can change if they are given life imprisonment.”

Muliawan Margadana, a mining company director, called the death penalty “a shortcut” that doesn’t address the root problems of drugs in Indonesia.

“Such issues can actually be addressed by enlivening social infrastructure like schools,” he said. “Religions also have a big role in making sure that young people don’t use drugs.”

Margadana, who is also chairman of the Jakarta-based Association of Catholic Graduates and Intellectuals in Indonesia, said Widodo’s recent pursuit of the death penalty reflected poorly on his administration and the country as a whole.

“I think this is a bad policy of President Widodo’s. He should be able to cancel the death penalty for the sake of humanity,” Margadana said. “By implementing the death penalty, he violates human rights and shows how uncivilized we are as a nation.”

A supporter of Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran lights candles outside Kerobokan prison in Denpasar on Wednesday (AFP Photo/Sonny Tumbelaka)



Widodo announced last year that he would not be lenient when dealing with drug-related crimes. In January, Indonesia went ahead with the executions of six convicted drug traffickers, including five foreigners. Since then, preparations have moved forward for other executions, including those of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, two Australian nationals convicted for their roles in the so-called “Bali Nine” drug smuggling operations.

Authorities this week announced that the pair have been transferred to an island prison where their executions appear to be imminent. This comes despite the Australian government’s repeated requests for leniency.

Some analysts have attempted to explain why Widodo has pushed forward with carrying out the death penalty so early in his term. Some have argued that it is part of an attempt by Widodo to show “decisiveness”, one of his perceived weaknesses among critics during the lead-up to his July election victory.

Yet it’s also likely that there is no public consensus on capital punishment in Indonesia. Political analyst Yohanes Sulaiman says there are no reliable public opinion surveys on the issue, and he believes answers to such a poll would swing wildly depending on how one frames the question.

For now, he said, the Indonesian media have framed it as a question of stemming drug abuse and standing up for Indonesian nationalism — most of the next round of planned executions involve foreigners, while Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s suggestion of foreign policy repercussions should the executions proceed have galvanized death penalty supporters.

Combined with frequent statements of support for the death penalty from Indonesia’s political elite, it has created an environment where Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, believes it is important to show decisiveness on this issue, Sulaiman says.

“I tend to think that Jokowi wants to forge an image of himself as a leader and a father of a nation,” said Sulaiman, who is a lecturer at the Indonesian National Defense University.

However, he also believes the death penalty is not a key issue for most Indonesians, who may be more interested in the anti-corruption platform on which Widodo ran, and was elected, last year. That may mean Widodo has little to gain, politically, by proceeding with the executions, yet much to lose if he doesn’t.

“I don’t think Jokowi is going to get any popularity boost by executing the Bali Nine suspects,” he said. “But if he doesn’t execute them, people will say he’s weak, he’s not as strong. So basically, Jokowi is painting himself into a corner. This has zero political gain for him.”

'People can change'

The death penalty has also proved divisive among religious groups.

Said Aqil Siradj, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, said in an interview that drug smugglers should be sentenced to death.

“The impact of such a crime is very massive. That’s why we choose to support the heaviest punishment against drug smugglers as it can decrease the number of people getting addicted to drugs,” he said.

Philip K Widjaya, secretary-general of the Indonesian Council of Buddhist Communities, said his organization believes the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for drug crimes.

“We don’t want a small group of people to harm a big number of others,” he said. “That’s why we don’t mind the death penalty being implemented.”

Other religious leaders, however, are strongly opposed.

“The death penalty violates the right of a criminal to have repentance and to change,” said Fr Peter C Aman, a moral theology lecturer at the Jakarta-based Driyarkara School of Philosophy.

Fr Paulus C Siswantoko, secretary of the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference’s Commission for Justice, Peace and Pastoral for Migrant-Itinerant People, said that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty.

“No one, including the state, has the right to take someone else’s life,” he said. "It is hoped that the state plays its role of education for criminals. We believe that people can change.”


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