Indonesian Executions Push Sovereignty Claim

Indonesia’s decision to kill convicted drug offenders – six already died in January with more scheduled to face the firing squad soon – has set off a diplomatic storm from Brazil to France to the Netherlands and Australia.

But despite the protests, President Joko Widodo is clearly determined to defend his tough stand on executions as well as a policy to sink foreign fishing vessels intruding into Indonesia’s waters. He wants to show that his presidency is taking a totally different approach compared with previous administrations when it comes to national interests and sovereignty.

At the end of the day, analysts say, Jokowi is sending a clear message that other countries’ attempts to challenge Indonesia’s “law sovereignty” will result in Jakarta flexing its own muscles, as Jokowi is trying to prove to his domestic constituents that Indonesia will no longer be intimidated or pushed around by foreign powers.

National identity

The president has arguably been successful in shaping the death penalty issue into one of national identity and suggesting that any and all foreign appeals constitute an affront to Indonesian sovereignty. This is also aided by a perception – which may or may not be based in fact –that perpetrators of drug trafficking are largely foreigners, while millions of Indonesians fall victim to drug use. The country has an estimated 4.7 million drug users. About 1.2 million of them used crystalline methamphetamine and 950,000 consumed ecstasy, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Jokowi has delivered the message to both the domestic and international audience that he will not budge on the planned executions despite continued lobbying and pressure from related countries. In fact, he doubled down by demonstrating military muscle, dispatching several fighter jets during the movement of two Australians from Bali’s Kerobokan prison to their new isolation cells in the Nusakambangan Island in central Java, where the executions are scheduled to take place.

The problem, of course, is that erasing the mules, or low-ranking couriers, will do little to deter the movement of drugs. Indonesia’s neighbor Singapore, after hanging hundreds of people including dozens of foreigners, in 2013 lifted the death penalty on Yong Vui Kong, a young Malaysian after a judge ruled that he was only a courier. Reform laws now allow the courts to impose life in prison if the accused is found to be a mule or mentally impaired.

Killing the mules

Certainly, the latest batch of offenders, most of them mules, make up an international caste that gives credence to a UNODC report that Indonesia is a major hub for drug trafficking by transnational organized crime groups in an effort to meet current or potential demand from a large young population and a correspondingly large Asian drug market.

Only one of the latest group, Zainal Abidin bin Mgs Mahmud Badarudin, is a native Indonesian. The 10 scheduled for the second round of executions are Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso of the Philippines, Serge Areski Atlaoui from France, Rodrigo Gularte from Brazil, Martin Anderson of Ghana, Raheem Agbaje Salami of Spain, Sylvester Obiekwe Nwolise and Okwudili Oyatanze of Nigeria, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan of Australia.

Nonetheless, Jokowi, inaugurated last October, is not backing away. He announced during his presidential campaign that he would not be lenient when dealing with drug-related crimes. In January, Indonesia executed six convicted drug traffickers, of which five were foreigners.

The planned executions of the two Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, have particularly set off a storm. The two were convicted for their roles in the so-called Bali Nine drug-smuggling operation that was busted in Bali in 2005; the two were sentenced to death in 2006 for trying to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin out of Indonesia. Jokowi refused their appeals for clemency in early January and the duo is expected to be executed soon. No exact date has been given.

Australian lobbying

Australia has pulled out all the stops in the campaign to save its citizens – both of whom are said to be models of rehabilitation – from the firing squad, to no avail. Prime Minister Tony Abbott reminded Indonesia of the relief the country provided during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami that devastated the province of Aceh. Abbott’s move backfired with the Indonesian public and earned him ridicule at home. Acehnese answered by collecting coins to “repay” the aid, and Vice President Jusuf Kalla said Indonesia is prepared to return the US$1 billion aid.

Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop offered a “prisoner exchange” to Indonesia which was answered with a cold shrug. “Our stance is clear. Our laws cannot be interfered with,” Jokowi told local media.

Australia abolished the death sentence decades ago, and officials have repeatedly said that the ongoing plan is inhumane and that Indonesia should show mercy, rhetoric that blew up when it was pointed out that Australia thanked Indonesia for executing the three Bali bombers—Imam Samudra, Amrozi Nurhasyim and his brother Ali Ghufron—in 2008 for their 2002 nightclub bombings that killed 202 people. The dead included 88 Australians, 28 Britons and eight Americans.


Brazil and France have also pressured Jakarta, with Paris summoning Indonesia’s envoy and the Brazilian president refusing to accept the credentials of the new Indonesian ambassador. Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry demanded an explanation from Brazil after President Dilma Rousseff refused to accept the diplomatic credentials.

Toto Riyanto, Indonesia’s incoming ambassador-designate to Brazil, was informed that his credentials would not be accepted after he had arrived at the president’s palace, expecting to become an ambassador. Toto has since been recalled to Indonesia and will meet with President Joko Widodo when he returns.

Brazil and the Netherlands withdrew their ambassadors from Indonesia after two of their citizens were among the six people executed for drugs offenses on the first round of execution in early January.

However, the tough policy may backfire when it comes to saving the lives of Indonesians abroad. Based on 2012 data from the NGO Migrant Care, 360 Indonesian migrant workers are facing the death penalty. Of those, it says 230 are victims of predatory drug syndicates.

Thirty-one Indonesians are facing execution in Malaysia, China and Saudi Arabia. Jokowi’s vow to refuse clemency to all drug offenders can be expected to limit any prospects of reciprocity and almost undoubtedly hamper efforts to save Indonesian citizens, a point which has been voiced by several NGOs, including Migrant Care.