Capital punishment has never been a contentious political or emotional issue in Indonesia. Although the death penalty is rarely applied, most people in the country still support its use, particularly for terrorists, serial killers, and even drug traffickers. The government would typically add treason to the short list of criminal offenses punishable by death.
So it comes as something of a surprise for Indonesia's small anti-capital punishment lobby that the issue has now been brought into public debate -- and even more so because the initiative came from the government.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been quietly using his constitutional prerogative to grant pardons to drug convicts on death row, commuting their sentences to life imprisonment. Thanks to him, 19 drug offenders have been spared from the gallows since 2004.
What more, his decision appears to be going against the grain of majority opinion. Critics recall his 2004 election campaign promise (he was reelected in 2009) that he would wage war against drug traffickers and make sure they are punished in the severest terms, including death.
The Supreme Court -- with which the president is supposed to consult before granting pardons -- said that, in most of these cases, it did not recommend commuting death sentences to life terms. To the contrary, it has defended the death penalty as part of the country's legal system.
So where did this government impetus to reduce the number of death sentences come from?
An explanation came from Vice Minister for Law and Human Rights Denny Indrayana, during a seminar held this week to mark the International Day Against the Death Penalty, and it makes sense. The government's move is part of an effort to spare some of the 197 Indonesians facing death row abroad.
In other words, the government feels that if Indonesia shows more leniency, avoids using the death penalty or even abolishes it, this could become a powerful lobbying tool to save its own citizens convicted abroad.
This is not a question of reciprocity. Most of the Indonesians sentenced to death abroad are in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, while Indonesia does not have any Saudis in its jails awaiting execution; if there are Malaysians among the 100 or so on death row in Indonesia, the number is unlikely to match the number of Indonesians in Malaysia. Of the 19 people whose death penalties were commuted by President Yudhoyono, only three were foreigners.
Still, the fact that Indonesia still has the death penalty on its books makes it difficult for the government, and particularly Indonesian embassies abroad, to make the case on behalf of its citizens to have their death sentences commuted as well.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Marty Natalegawa said Indonesia is one of 58 countries in the world that still uses capital punishment. He fell short of advocating its abolition entirely, but noted that most of the world has been moving in that direction.
It isn't clear how much support there is in Indonesia for the abolition of capital punishment, but statements and actions from the government indicate that it wants to open a public debate, and to receive at least some support for its diplomatic efforts to commute the sentences.
The last public consensus maintained that Indonesia should keep the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes. The Nahdlatul Ulama, an influential Islamic mass organization, even demanded that corruption be added to the list of capital offenses.
With Indonesians travelling abroad more, including many migrant workers, some of them will inevitably get into serious trouble. While Indonesians probably have little sympathy for drug traffickers, some Indonesian workers, including young women serving as domestic helpers, have received death sentences for committing murders which many here regard as self defense against abusive employers.
Now Indonesia may argue that it is using the death penalty sparingly. Even fewer sentences have been executed due to the complexity and length of the legal appeals and case reviews. Many on death row will likely spend long years in prison before their fate is settled. The last reported execution in Indonesia happened in 2008: A total of eight persons went before the firing squad, including three Islamic terrorists responsible for the 2002 bombings that killed over 200 people on the holiday island of Bali.
But as long as the death penalty is still legally in the books, it will be difficult for Indonesia to ask foreign governments to show leniency for its own citizens sentenced to death.
The debate on capital punishment in Indonesia is just beginning.
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