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Jakarta Post

Commentary: Capital punishment and public opinion

  • Endy Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, January 23, 2015   /  09:02 am

The campaign to abolish capital punishment in Indonesia suffered a huge setback following the execution of six drug traffickers over the weekend.

The voices of abolitionists were drowned out by those who came out in support of President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo, who used the executions as an important part of his war against drug abuse in this country.

Public opinion in Indonesia is still overwhelmingly in favor of retaining capital punishment, certainly for the most heinous crimes, including drug trafficking, which is rampant in this country and has such deadly effects.

The execution of the six people who had lingered on death row for years may have revived the debate on capital punishment. Looking at public opinion and social media, retentionists have not only prevailed, but they also won more recruits.

Eleventh-hour appeals last week in phone calls to Jokowi for stays of execution from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and King Willem of the Netherlands, whose citizens were among the six executed, fell on deaf ears.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also been on the phone with Jokowi trying to save two convicted Australian drug traffickers, whose executions are apparently imminent. Abbott has to prepare for disappointment and Indonesia for more diplomatic fallout.

The foreign leaders'€™ interventions, well-meaning as they are, may even have done a disservice to the abolitionists'€™ cause. The executions have now been turned into a question of Indonesia'€™s national pride with accusations flying about the West imposing its human rights values on us. But, as the saying goes, the harder they push, the stronger Indonesia pushes back.

In response to these foreign meddlers, Indonesia has invoked its sovereignty rights and legal system, which recognizes the death penalty. And with 58 more on death row, we can expect a few more executions, including many non-Indonesians, in the coming days or weeks, just to make a point.

The human rights campaigners and abolitionists have now learned to their dismay that compassion is not President Jokowi'€™s strongest suit, if he has any at all.

They should have known better. We have a leader who nurtures his power and political legitimacy mostly from public opinion, perhaps more than any other president before him because he does not control any political party.

This may have been the reason why barely three months into office, Jokowi ordered the executions of the dozens of drug traffickers on death row. His sagging popularity must have improved for taking a strong stand on drug abuses and for standing up to foreign meddlers.

His predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono waited at least a few years, although he too used capital punishment to shore up his public support. It was no coincidence that he ordered the executions of 10 people in 2008 and four in 2013 '€” both times one year before a general election.

Taking someone else'€™s life is murder. There is no other word to describe it. These are murders legitimated by the country'€™s law and, more importantly, by public opinion.

The nation accepted uncritically President Jokowi'€™s repeated argument that 40 to 50 people die every day because of drug addiction.

Even if this fatality figure was true, how many people in this country die of smoking and smoking-related diseases? And how many people die, many of slow death, because of poverty and poor access to health care because the country'€™s elite have been stealing money through rampant corruption. Since more people die of heart diseases, can you make a similar argument of how many people die because of eating too much meat?

The National Narcotic Agency (BNN) says more than 4.2 million people in this country are addicted drug users, making Indonesia a haven and a lucrative market for drug traffickers. Jokowi has declared Indonesia under a state of emergency.

This is something that many Indonesians will quickly embrace because it gives them a convenient scapegoat. Surely the responsibility of containing drug abuse first and foremost must fall on parents and the family and then the school, the religious leaders and their communities and then on the law enforcement agencies and the government.

Supporters of the death penalty for drug traffickers rely on religious leaders endorsing the killing of human beings, even though most major religions advocate compassion and forgiveness above any act of vengeance.

The jury is still out that the death penalty will deter drug traffickers, but then this matters little in Indonesia. Public opinion very much wants it.

Little did the public know that Indonesia was close to abolishing the death penalty from its books in 2008. A small band of abolitionists submitted a petition to the Constitutional Court and it lost by a single vote. Insiders say the vote would have been five to four in favor of abolition, but at the last minute one judge switched sides to retain capital punishment, apparently because he too sensed that was what the public wanted.

The campaign to abolish capital punishment is not over by any means. Clearly a large part of the battle has to be fought in the public sphere. Abolitionists need to organize and get their act together and most of all they need to learn how to win public opinion to their side.


The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post

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