Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 04:27 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Jan 2019 | 04:27 | SYDNEY

Why is Jokowi pushing capital punishment?



4 February 2015 13:45

The two Australians on death row in Indonesia, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, appear to be running out of chances now that the Indonesian Government has confirmed that the convicted drug smugglers will face a firing squad in the next round of executions. The decision to 'empty' Indonesia's list of death row inmates was made by President Jokowi, who marked 100 days in office at the end of January, and who until now was viewed by most international observers as a reformer with a commitment to human rights.

So why has Jokowi taken such an uncompromising stance on capital punishment? A look at capital punishment in the Indonesian context, and the political circumstances Jokowi now faces, may provide some explanation.

Firstly, capital punishment is generally framed in Indonesia as a matter of law enforcement rather than human rights. Jokowi is unlikely to see a conflict between his stated commitment to improving the state of human rights in Indonesia and his support for the death penalty. While rights groups object to the use of the death penalty in Indonesia, many ordinary citizens approve of it as a deterrent for crime, and as a final punishment for criminals who may otherwise find ways to pay their way out of jail, or at least into a more comfortable cell. This is why there are often calls in the press and at public demonstrations for corruptors to face the death penalty — to make sure they can't use the crime that got them into jail to get themselves out again.

This zero-tolerance attitude extends to drug smugglers, contrary to international conventions on the use of capital punishment. The usual argument is that drug smugglers are responsible for lives lost and communities fractured by illegal drug use, and therefore deserve the harshest punishment. Indonesia is not alone in this — its neighbours in Southeast Asia hold a similar position on the severity of drug smuggling as a crime. This approach is filling up Indonesia's jails with young people convicted for as little as possession of a single joint, contributing to overcrowding and strain on resources.

But as Jokowi discovered last month with the execution of citizens from Brazil, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Vietnam, enforcing capital punishment on foreign nationals has a tendency to upset international relations. Brazil and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors over the incident, and Australia has threatened to do the same if the execution of Chan and Sukumaran goes ahead.

Aside from using the opportunity to promote abolition of the death penalty, Australia has a legitimate basis to ask for clemency talks. After all, it was information provided by the Australian Federal Police that enabled Indonesian customs officials to arrest Chan and Sukumaran in the first place. By ignoring Australia's requests for any negotiations on clemency, Jokowi risks damaging an information-sharing relationship that helps prevent smuggling between the two countries.

Domestically, however, Jokowi's refusal to compromise with Australia is met with praise. Former president Yudhoyono's decision to grant clemency to convicted smuggler Schapelle Corby was unpopular in Indonesia, seen as showing weakness to foreign influence. While the Australian press got behind Corby's case, the Indonesian press labelled her the 'Ganja Queen' and generally lamented her early release. By ignoring Australia's objections to the upcoming executions, Jokowi is seen as showing a commitment to national sovereignty and resistance to outside power and influence.

Furthermore, Jokowi is in the early stages of his presidency and still trying to establish a power base from which to make change. He is currently caught in the middle of a messy scandal involving the widely trusted Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and his volunteer support network on one side, and the National Police and his own party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), on the other. Each side has accused the other of corruption, while Jokowi himself has been reluctant or unable to take sides and resolve the issue, effectively leaving the leadership of two important national institutions in limbo. In this climate of uncertainty, acting firmly on executions at least has the benefit of giving the appearance of stability and rule of law.

By pushing capital punishment, Jokowi is able to build a narrative of strong, clean law enforcement and protection of Indonesia's borders. This approach may win him some short-lived legitimacy at home, but abroad he risks doing damage to his image as a champion of human rights.

You may also be interested in...