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Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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The Cogs of Indonesia’s Death Machine

Indonesian President Joko Widodo
Indonesian President Joko Widodo
Indonesia’s executions for drug-related crimes are based on political expedience, not necessity.

Twelve months following the Indonesian government’s execution of eight people, some of whom were foreign citizens, all on charges of drug smuggling, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited Germany in April, where Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced her opposition to his country’s continued use of capital punishment, especially for drug-related crimes.

The president, by way of a justification, responded: “There are between 30 and 50 people in Indonesia dying per day because of drugs,” quoting figures questioned by many health experts. But it was left to Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo to put the matter more bluntly when he stated: “We are fighting a war against horrible drug crimes that threaten our nation’s survival… I would like to say that an execution is not a pleasant thing. It is not a fun job. But we must do it in order to save the nation from the danger of drugs.”

There can be little doubt from these words that the Indonesian government equates both the death penalty and the executions of its ‘enemies’ in the war on drugs as a necessity for national security. In doing so, it is hardly original. As far back as 1764, the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria wrote in his famed essay, “Of Crimes and Punishments,” that the death penalty is a “war of the whole nation against a citizen whose destruction they consider necessary.” Capital punishment is, as we are informed by some, a “necessary evil” – one of the most vulgar terms in the political vocabulary.

In doing so, however, the Indonesian government rests its case upon a false premise. Its continued, or rather increased, use of the death penalty has little to do with national survival and more to do with quotidian politics; it is not forced to execute but simply chooses to do so, however much it may say otherwise. (This is not an original point, as those with knowledge of Indonesian politics are aware, but just as a lie told repeatedly becomes the truth, so too does a truth not repeated become effaced.)

But first, it is worth describing the actual process that takes place. Since 1964, Indonesia’s mechanism of death has changed only slightly. Months before the execution is to take place, the condemned is transported to Nusa Kambangan island, a former Dutch prison colony, and today the site of maximum security prisons, nicknamed Indonesia’s Alcatraz. They will be given 72 hours’ notice before the execution takes place, and, at some point around midnight, the condemned is woken and walked by guards, along with either a priest or cleric, to a grassy area to stand in front of a firing squad composed of 12 riflemen from a paramilitary force called the Mobile Brigade Corps. A white shirt is placed on the condemned, who is then blindfolded and asked whether he would prefer enjoy the last few seconds of life standing, sitting, or kneeling. A doctor pens an X on the white shirt, above the convict’s heart. Then, after a commander’s yell, 12 shots are fired from a distance of five to ten meters. Only three shots, however, are live; nine of the soldiers will be supplied with blanks, so no one knows who took another person’s life. If more than one execution is to take place, they are conducted simultaneously.

One is reminded of Albert Camus’ following passage from “Reflections on the Guillotine”:

What then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months.

In a few months’ time – no date has yet been set – this fate awaits another 15 inmates who will be executed by the Indonesian government: five Indonesian nationals, four Chinese, one Pakistani, two Nigerians, two Senegalese, and one Zimbabwean. Some publications have noted, rather cynically, that “there is unlikely to be the same kind of uproar… [for] the next round of executions” compared to last year’s, as Time magazine put it. The reason: because 12 of the condemned are from countries that implement the death penalty and the remaining three are from “poor African countries.” This prediction, most probably quite accurate, does not expect Australia or other nations to raise such an opposition, as they last year, when it is not their own citizens being killed – a rather shameful show of empathy and internationalism.

It is believed that between 50 to 70 percent of prisoners in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand are in jail for drug-related crimes. For Indonesia this is accepted to be at 70 percent; most are low-level drug users.

Last year, the country’s National Narcotics Agency estimated that almost four million Indonesians had ever used drugs – 1.6 million who have “ever tried” drugs, 1.4 million “regular” users, and 943,000 “addicts.” With 250 million citizens, that makes just 0.004 percent of the population drug addicts.

To be side-tracked slightly, it was recently reported that Indonesia is set to have the world’s highest rate of smokers in the coming years. Currently, 67 percent of all males above 15 years old smoke cigarettes, and tobacco related illnesses are thought to account for upwards of 200,000 deaths per year. (That works out at 547 deaths every day, making the 50 per day because of drugs seem paltry.) But do we hear the government calling for the CEOs of tobacco firms to be executed? No. Perhaps because tobacco firms are the third-highest payer of tax in Indonesia, an estimated $13 billion each year, and are key funders of presidential candidates when elections come around.


Source: The Diplomat, David Hutt, June 8, 2016. David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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