Amid ever-deepening political polarization, there is one issue on which the vast majority of Indonesians can apparently find common ground: the death penalty.
A 2015 survey by Indo Barometer found that 84.1 percent of respondents were in favor of capital punishment for persons convicted of drug-related offenses. A 2017 Kompas poll found that a similarly overwhelming 89.3 percent of respondents supported the death penalty for persons convicted of terrorism-related offenses.
Even polls show the death penalty is more popular in Indonesia than democracy (76.2 percent in favor, according to a 2021 Indikator Politik Indonesia survey), vaccines (64.8 percent in favor, according to a November 2020 WHO survey) and the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic is real (79 percent, according to a September 2020 University of Indonesia study).
This popularity is reflected in government policy and public discourse. The use of the death penalty has actually declined globally, with Amnesty International recording a reduction in the number of death sentences and executions from 2019 to 2020, by 36 percent and 26 percent, respectively, as shown in its 2020 Death Penalty Report. However, the opposite is happening in this country.
According to Amnesty International data, Indonesian courts handed down 117 new death sentences in 2020, a 46 percent increase from 2019. And even as the number of death sentences rises, it is calls to expand the use of the death penalty rather than scale it down or abolish it that often gain traction. Capital punishment for graft convicts, for example, is an oft-recurring demand that has recently popped up again after two Cabinet ministers were arrested for allegedly accepting bribes.
Does this sustained enthusiasm for the death penalty mean that Indonesians are particularly bloodthirsty or vengeful? Of course not.
No, the popular support for capital punishment stems primarily from a desire for justice based on a perceived lack of it in the country’s criminal justice system.
In the World Justice Project’s 2020 Rule of Law Index, which is scored on a scale of 0 to 1, Indonesia scored 0.39 for criminal justice. The score is well below the regional average of 0.54 and the global average of 0.47, placing Indonesia 79th out of 128 countries.
The index, which is compiled by surveying more than 130,000 households and 4,000 legal practitioners across 128 countries, found that respondents considered Indonesia’s criminal investigation system to be ineffective (0.35), that its correctional system is not effective in reducing crime (0.29) and that its criminal system is not impartial (0.28).
With such low confidence that those who commit crimes will even be caught, much less punished, it is perhaps not surprising to see that many people appear to believe that those who are convicted should face the most severe punishment possible. Especially when politicians and government officials routinely regurgitate the idea that the death penalty and other cruel forms of punishment, such as chemical castration, will help deter crimes.
The fact is that there is no credible evidence showing the death penalty has a greater deterrent effect on crime than imprisonment. Findings made by a number of domestic and comparative studies conducted around the world, including by the United Nations, demonstrate that.
In 1924, renowned American lawyer Clarence Darrow said capital punishment was based on “the ancient superstition that in some way, hanging one man keeps another from committing a crime”.
Since then, there has only been more evidence demonstrating the fallacy of the so-called deterrence argument. Numerous studies have found, as criminal justice experts Daniel Nagin and Greg Pogarsky wrote in a 2001 article, that “punishment certainty is far more consistently found to deter crime than punishment severity”.
And therein lies the rub. How could any punishment, however severe, provide a deterrent effect in a criminal justice system like Indonesia’s, in which there is too often no certainty that criminal acts will receive any punishment at all?
How could the threat of capital punishment deter drug traffickers when many police officers have been found to be involved in the drug trade? How could a justice system deter corruption when antigraft agencies are defanged and investigators are attacked with few if any repercussions? How could it deter sexual assault when the vast majority of perpetrators are never reported in part because of distrust in law enforcement?
A criminal justice system in which critics of those in power are swiftly arrested for “defamation” while unlawful killings by state actors remain uninvestigated for years needs urgent reform, not the death penalty.
If anything, capital punishment only makes things worse. Deliberately killing a person, whatever the crime, is cruel in itself. Doing so in a criminal justice system where the right to a fair trial is not guaranteed further compounds its horrendous nature. And it’s not just the execution itself: the long waits, in oftentimes terrible prison conditions, are a form of mental and psychological torture.
The death penalty is not and can never be the measure that will cure Indonesia’s justice system; it’s the snake oil used to cover up the system’s gaping failures. Let us all oppose the death penalty in all cases without exception.
Let us all ensure that Indonesia takes one step toward actually fixing things by joining the other 108 countries in the world that have abolished capital punishment for all crimes.
We should always remember what Albert Camus (1957) once said: “Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal's deed, however calculated, can be compared.”
The writer is executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.