"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Widodo's Desperate Executions

Self-portrait after our new arrivals, A Bad Sleep Last Night Myuran Sukumaran, April 25, 2015 Nusa Kambangan Island, RI
One of Myuran Sukumaran's last paintings on Nusa Kambangan Island, Apr. 2015 
Indonesia makes no secret that drug-dealing convictions there carry the death penalty, but until this year the law rarely enforced.

Indonesians sometimes joke that their country, which stretches roughly the distance from Anchorage to Washington, D.C., is the biggest invisible place on earth. It attracts international attention only through the thunderous destruction of a tsunami, the blast of a terrorist bomb, or, most recently, the crack of executioners' rifles.

Shortly after midnight on Thursday, a police firing squad shot through the heart 1 Indonesian, 2 Australians, 4 Nigerians, and 1 Brazilian (who is said to have suffered from mental illness), all of whom had been convicted of drug smuggling. 1 French citizen and 1 Filipino were spared at the last moment, but may still be executed. Preceding the shots was another deafening noise: the nationalist chest thumping of Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Widodo portrayed appeals for mercy from Australian, French, and Brazilian leaders, as well as from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as affronts to Indonesia's national integrity. "This is our legal sovereignty," he told foreign reporters who asked what effect the executions would have on relations with other countries. "Don't ask me that again." Widodo was effectively saying to Indonesian voters, "Just watch me face down those bullying foreigners." This message, of course, comes not from a position of strength but one of weakness. But Indonesia isn't just any nation. Its 250 million people are scattered across 13,500 islands, belong to over 3 hundred ethnic groups, and speak twice that many languages. They are governed by over 500 district heads and parliaments, who are chosen in elections contested by 12 national and 3 local political parties. As a nation, Indonesia is held together through patronage networks and elaborate horse-trading, much of it brokered through the political pooh-bahs in Jakarta.

Widodo heads a minority coalition in the national parliament. That's not insuperable in Indonesia's deeply transactional political system, but, as an outsider to both Jakarta and the political elite, the President finds it hard to wheel or deal his way out of the gridlock that the opposition gleefully drives him into. As a result, he's unhealthily reliant on the power brokers in his own political party, notably former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's 1st President, Sukarno. She's sulky about the popularity of a man she treats as her underling (he's often seen to touch his forehead down to her hand, as one does to a respected elder or teacher), and she has put many obstacles in his path. Most notably, Megawati engineered a situation, too complicated to relate, that put the President on the wrong side of a damaging conflict between the deeply unpopular police and the respected anti-corruption commission.

Widodo has needed to reassert his credibility with Indonesian voters, to show that he's more than just Megawati's puppet, that he's still fighting for the interests of ordinary Indonesians. But because he can't get much done in the legislature, he has chosen quick wins that can be had solely through executive power. Executing foreign drug dealers is one of those. So is actively lobbying for clemency for Indonesian nationals who are on death row in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia. The sovereignty argument, it appears, only runs in 1 direction.

Indonesia, like its Southeast Asian neighbors Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, makes no secret that drug-dealing convictions carry the death penalty. Travellers arriving by plane (that's almost everyone in this island nation) are informed of the fact on every flight, and smoking guns grace banner ads from the Narcotics Control Board at all major airports. But until this year Indonesia rarely enforced the law. Over the 15 years before Widodo took office, 7 foreigners, and no Indonesians, were put to death for narcotics-related offenses. Under Widodo, in the past year alone 12 foreigners have been executed for drug smuggling, along with 2 Indonesians.

The executions have been surprisingly popular at home. In a poll published the day before the latest round, 86 % of Indonesians said that they thought the government should proceed with the killings. Most respondents echoed Widodo's rhetoric: wicked foreigners are tearing at the fabric of Indonesian society by luring young people into using drugs. The President backs up these phantoms with shocking numbers. Over 50 young Indonesians die every day because of drugs, and some 4 million Indonesians are abusing drugs. So the President says, and so the Indonesian press reports. Killing drug dealers supposedly will wipe out this terrible scourge and save a generation.

Semoga mimpi buruk Bapak Presiden!
Semoga mimpi buruk Bapak Presiden!
Widodo's death statistics, however, are so methodologically flawed that you could use them to teach critical data review to teen-agers. As for the prevalence of drug abuse, the most recent Indonesian survey that is in any way comparable with those of other countries shows that, in 2011, just 4 % of young Indonesians had ever tried drugs, including not only cannabis, speed, and heroin but also glue (sniffed), cough medicine (drank excessive amounts), and headache pills (mixed with soft drinks). That's down by 1/2 from a similar survey 5 years earlier, and it pales in comparison with drug use among young people in the United States and Europe. In the U.S., 35 % of students of a similar age report having used cannabis, and 16 % have used hard drugs, including ecstasy, coke, crack, LSD, and heroin. French 16-year-olds report even higher levels of drug use.

Is Indonesia really facing a national catastrophe on the drug front? And, if so, is killing drug mules the best response? Other countries, with rates of drug use 10 times higher, don't seem to think so. They have other ways of reducing drug-related deaths: making sure that people suffering overdoses have access to life-saving naloxone, for example; providing injectors with easy access to sterile equipment so that they don't get fatal infections; and offering less dangerous drugs, such as methadone, to help people get off more dangerous ones, such as heroin. (The U.S. is not a leader in drug-abuse harm reduction, but it is doing better than Indonesia.) These policies will all do more to reduce drug-related deaths than killing dealers, especially when the dealers are trying to take drugs out of the country, and off the local market, as was the case with the 2 Australians killed on Thursday.

That was not the only anomaly in their cases. The Australians' former lawyer and the wife of one of the Nigerian prisoners both claimed that Indonesian judges had asked for bribes in exchange for lighter sentences. In the case of the Australians, the judges are said to have rescinded the offer after being told by Jakarta to hand down a death sentence (if true, that would also be illegal). The Brazilian smuggler had an established diagnosis of schizophrenia, which, like any other mental illness, should have swept the accused out of the path of a death sentence. These legal issues alone should be enough to trigger full reviews, and there are similar oddities in most of the other cases.

Widodo, however, is far too weak politically to have hesitated over these issues. He desperately needed to signal his strength at home, and he could most easily do that through the crack of the firing squad. He doesn't give a fig how it sounds to the rest of the world.

Source: The New Yorker, May 3, 2015 (wr)

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