Indonesia Prepares for New International Condemnation

Once again, Indonesia’s Police Mobile Brigade Unit is preparing an unknown number of firing squads to be deployed to the Nusakambangan prison island, where they are expected to shoot an as-yet undetermined number of drug offenders, including a British grandmother who was caught smuggling cocaine into Bali.

Police have been keeping the number of individuals and their identities secret until three days before the executions, expected before May 15, apparently out of concern over potential international condemnation because of the numbers of foreign offenders among them. However, Asia Sentinel has been told as many as 14 could be shot, including Nigerian and Pakistani nationals.

If anything, while the executions prove the utter futility of such draconian punishments in controlling drug use, they are earning overwhelming condemnation for Indonesia and President Joko Widodo across much of the world.

At a time when a wide swath of modern nations has abandoned the execution of drug mules, Jokowi, as he is known, has reversed the policies of his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and has so far produced two rounds of executions. After the country temporarily ended executions in November 2015, the third round is expected to occur at any time, a police spokesman said, adding that each squad will number seven to eight riflemen.

A year ago, police firing squads executed 14 individuals at Nusakambangan including Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the leaders of the so-called Bali Nine drug trafficking ring, which impelled Australia to recall its ambassador for five weeks. The United Nations Office of the High Commission for Human Rights called executions for drug offences a violation of international law.

“The imposition of death sentences and executions for drug offences significantly increases the number of persons around the world caught in a system of punishment that is incompatible with fundamental tenets of human rights,” a high commission spokesman said last October, adding that in many of the states where the death penalty is used for drug-related offenses, there is no system of fair trial.

Angela Merkel has sought to intercede, speaking vainly with Jokowi when the latter was on a trip to Berlin. The president, however, said the punishment was justified as a way to put a stop to what he called the country’s “drug emergency.”

Indonesian authorities assert that Indonesia currently is the home of 4.5 million drug addicts, of whom 33 die daily from drug overdoses. A recent Al Jazeera report said 60 percent of the 12,000 people locked up in Jakarta jails are imprisoned for substance abuse or selling drugs. Conversely, the report said, there are only 22,000 therapy beds across the country, despite official statistics saying that 1.2 million drug addicts need immediate care.

Critics say the executions are barbaric. The case of the British grandmother, 60-year-old Lindsey June Sandiford, a former legal secretary, seems not only barbaric but a capricious demonstration of the vagaries of the Indonesian justice system. Sandiford was arrested in May of 2012 when she arrived at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport and a routine search of her luggage discovered 2.5 lb of cocaine. She almost immediately began cooperating with authorities, taking part in a sting operation to catch the ringleaders that netted a British antiques dealer named Julian Ponder and his partner, a woman named Rachel Dougall. Sandiford booked into a hotel with an undercover police officer who made arrangements to meet with Ponder and another man named Paul Beales.

Ponder and Beales were arrested and Dougall was caught later when a search of the property she shared with Ponder turned up nearly 50 grams of cocaine and 3.1 grams of hashish. Dougall was found guilty of failing to report a crime and sentenced to a year in prison while Beales was found guilty of possession of hashish and given a four-year sentence. Ponder was cleared. Sandiford was convicted, with a recommendation by prosecutors that she be spared the death penalty given that she had cooperated with authorities and because of her age. Prosecutors recommended a 15-year sentence. However, in December of 2012 she was convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to death by firing squad. Yudhoyono’s commutation of sentences saved her only temporarily. The death sentence was reinstated after Jokowi took office.

Despite a widespread recognition in other countries that harsher penalties by and large don’t work, Indonesian authorities apparently are determined to double down on them, with new laws under consideration that increase them, including one bizarre proposal that traffickers be force-fed their own narcotics until they die.

If anything, health professionals say, such harsh laws drive drug users away from seeking treatment out of a fear of punishment, and that drug addiction is a health crisis and not a law enforcement one.

Amnesty International, Huma Rights Watch and other human rights organizations believe harsh laws are discriminatory, as appears to be proven by the Sandifer case. Few heads of drug syndicates are ever caught, with the majority of those on death row foreign nationals caught as couriers. One of them is Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipina who was arrested and sentenced to death in 2010 for smuggling 2.6 kg of heroin into the country in her suitcase and whose case has become a major point of friction with the Philippines.

Veloso was sentenced to death in 2010 but was also spared by Yudhoyono’s moratorium. Jokowi overturned that moratorium and she was again scheduled to be executed in January of 2015 with the Bali Nine. Whether public pressure in the Philippines saved her – temporarily – is unclear. Boxer Manny Pacquiao visited her in her jail cell and hundreds of thousands have signed petitions in the effort to save her.

She was granted a midnight stay after President Benigno S. Aquino III made a personal appeal for clemency on the basis that her alleged trafficker apparently surrendered to the police in the Philippines and faces charges of human trafficking, illegal recruiting and estafa (fraud). Veloso was given a reprieve to testify in the case. Most lately, there is speculation that her case played a role in cooperation between the Philippines and Indonesia in freeing 10 Indonesian sailors kidnapped off their freighter last month by Abu Sayyaf gangsters.