When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono commuted the death sentences of four individuals found guilty of narcotics crimes, the backlash was instant, huge and fierce.
Anti-narcotics activists and politicians denounced the decision as a defeat in the battle against illicit drugs. The National Narcotics Agency cast doubt on the administration’s political will to wage that fight. Some leaders of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, joined the chorus of censures.
Responding to mounting criticism, the government called for an inter-ministerial press conference. The Justice and Human Rights Minister said the government was selective in granting clemency; that those who got commutations were drug mules and not traffickers. Traffickers would never receive clemency, he stressed.
The coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs said that in the one instance where a drug trafficker had his death sentence reversed, it was the Supreme Court that granted it, not the president. So far, so defensive.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa took up the chant for the government, pointing out that the commutation of death sentences for drug crimes is not unique to Indonesia.
“This policy is also practiced in other countries,” he said, “and Indonesians are among the beneficiaries of such clemency.”
There are today 298 Indonesians abroad awaiting their dates with the executioner, and the government is moving heaven and earth to save their necks, regardless of whether they are drug mules or traffickers or murder convicts. The government won’t again suffer the kind of outcry that followed the beheading of an Indonesian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia in 2011. Nevertheless Indonesia upholds and carries out capital punishment.
This is something new: citing, in one breath, the policy to save Indonesians abroad, and the policy of carrying out the death penalty at home.
Marty had a presentation detailing a sharp trend toward the abolition of the death penalty among member countries of the United Nations. Of 193 UN members, he said, 140 have abolished the death penalty or imposed a moratorium on it. Indonesia was among the remaining pro-death penalty countries.
He explained the sharp increase in abolitionist countries was due to the perception that the death penalty was inconsistent with human rights. And because Indonesia was campaigning to save the lives of its citizens abroad, he said that the country was headed in the same direction.
One news portal jumped to a premature conclusion that Indonesia was about to abolish the death penalty.
It will take an eternity for Indonesia to get there. But if Marty has started a national debate on abolishing the death penalty, then he has done a great service not only to Indonesian death convicts here and abroad but also to the cause of human rights, and the most sacred of them all: the right to life.
International law lays down conditions in which human life may be lawfully terminated, such as in direct defense of another human life, war and a government’s exercise of capital punishment. There’s no question about direct defense of another human life. But war is a scourge that we fervently wish to banish forever.
And capital punishment is morally dubious; empirical evidence has exposed its claim as a crime deterrent as overrated.
A policy debate, with strong civil society participation, should establish whether Indonesia is ready for abolition. Or at least impress on the national mind the possibility of abolition.
Let’s hope that when the debate does take place, it produces more light than heat.