Dicing with death penalties in Indonesia
The World Today, Volume 69, Number 5, June 2013
In March, Adami Wilson, a Malawi national convicted of drug smuggling, was executed by firing squad, ending a four-year pause in executions in Indonesia.
Wilson’s death was the result of a backlash against a softening of Indonesia’s commitment to capital punishment, prompted by official advocacy for its own citizens facing the death penalty abroad. This advocacy energized abolitionists within government, enabling them to be more vocal.
Although advocates of capital punishment eventually prevailed, the emergence of the imperative to protect citizens abroad as a factor in Indonesia’s death penalty debate bears implications for all countries that retain capital punishment.
Indonesia’s challenge to protect its citizens outside its borders is particularly acute. Almost five million of them are registered as living abroad and the real numbers may be much higher. Many of these work in vulnerable circumstances as maids, with Malaysia and Saudi Arabia historically among the main destinations. Maltreatment by their employers is rife.
It was the execution of one maid that triggered Indonesia’s focus on protecting its citizens abroad. When Saudi Arabia beheaded 54-year-old Ruyati binti Satubi in mid-2011 for stabbing her employer to death, the uproar in Indonesia was intense. Many Indonesians criticized their government for doing little to support her.
The government responded swiftly, setting up a taskforce to protect the approximately 200 Indonesians facing the death penalty overseas. The taskforce pursued diplomacy, which included President Yudhoyono writing to foreign governments, and established a network of lawyers on retainer in priority countries.
It also took the extraordinary step of paying blood money to free several Indonesians facing execution for murder in Saudi Arabia. As of December 2012, the government claimed to have helped 110 Indonesians avoid the death penalty.
Meanwhile, Indonesia noticeably altered its own stance on the death penalty. The government announced that the president had granted clemency to four narcotics prisoners on death row, a sharp departure from previous practice. In a press conference to defend these decisions, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa cited a global trend towards abolition of the death penalty, and said Indonesia was itself headed in that direction. Subsequently, in November 2012, Indonesia abstained in the UN General Assembly vote on a moratorium on the death penalty, having voted to reject three previous resolutions.
The backlash from the death penalty’s many supporters in Indonesia was significant. Few if any dared publicly to criticize the government’s foreign advocacy, which appears to enjoy public support. Instead they targeted the clemency decisions.
Most tellingly, the National Narcotics Board re-arrested one of the death row prisoners to receive clemency, and accused her of being a high-level player in a drug syndicate spanning a number of prisons. The arrest was embarrassing for the government, and added to pressure to resume executions. In the end, only four months after Indonesia’s abstention in the UN vote, Adami Wilson faced the firing squad. Three more prisoners were executed in May. At least six more executions are scheduled for this year, leaving Indonesia as a nation that opposes the death penalty for its own citizens abroad, but conducts executions.
Indonesia’s resumption of executions is a setback for efforts to end the death penalty, particularly within Southeast Asia. If Indonesia, as the region’s largest nation, had abolished capital punishment other countries would have felt pressure to follow suit. Already, Indonesia’s debate appears to have spilled over to Malaysia, where an abolitionist minister justified a review of his country’s death penalty for drugs by saying this mandatory penalty impeded efforts to seek clemency for Malaysian drug mules abroad.
Although Indonesia’s death penalty supporters have for the moment prevailed, the broader significance of the imperative to protect citizens abroad remains. As greater numbers of their citizens work overseas, all countries that retain the death penalty wil face the same dilemma as Indonesia.
Bangladesh, for example, encountered protests from rights groups after Saudi Arabia executed eight of its nationals in 2011. The Indian government last year fielded a question from its parliament regarding Indian citizens facing the death penalty overseas; Indians on death row in Middle Eastern countries have also periodically received pardons after blood money was paid. China, too, has nationals on death row abroad, although this has not emerged as a public issue there to date.
In these countries, too, it could yet turn out to be a citizen facing death abroad that provides new impetus to the abolitionist movement.
Dave McRae is a research fellow in the East Asia Programme at the Lowy Institute for International Policy