Is Indonesia on the cusp of abolishing the death penalty, which is used as a sentencing tool against terrorism, premeditated murder and drug trafficking?
Although the death penalty is rarely handed down, it is still the focus of human rights groups, which want the government to end capital punishment because of its rights violation and its supposed ineffective deterrence of crime.
Two recent developments have prompted the question.
First, it has emerged that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been quietly using his constitutional prerogatives to grant clemency to convicts, including those on death row, since 2004 after winning the election.
The clemency has reduced the sentences of 19 drug offenders, including four on death row, whose lives have been spared from certain death by firing squad.
Three of the condemned men were Indonesians, while the fourth was a foreigner. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison.
Two of the Indonesians were former civil servant Deni Setia Maharwa and his accomplice Meirika Pranola, who were caught with a third accomplice at the Jakarta International Airport before a flight to London in 2000. They were found to be members of a syndicate trying to smuggle heroin and cocaine.
Deni was granted clemency in January this year, and Meirika in November last year, on humanitarian grounds, as they were deemed couriers, not traffickers. It was not revealed when the third accomplice received his clemency.
Earlier last month, a three-judge panel of the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of drug lord Hengky Gunawan, converting it to a prison term of 15 years.
Hengky was convicted in 2007 of running a major Ecstasy production and distribution ring from Surabaya, in East Java.
The judges said that the death sentence in Hengky's case was antithetical to the Constitution, which enshrines a right to life.
Second, Cabinet members have come out not only to defend the granting of clemency to drug offenders on death row, but also to link it to advocacy for Indonesians in foreign prisons.
In separate remarks, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and Deputy Justice Minister Denny Indrayana said that the decision to commute the death sentence handed down to drug convicts was part of a wider push to move away from capital punishment.
Marty said recently that globally, more countries had stopped using the death penalty, although it remained on their statutes, as it does in Indonesia.
"The policy of commuting a death sentence for a drug crime is not something that happens just in Indonesia," he said.
"This policy is also practised in other countries, and Indonesians are among the beneficiaries of such clemency."
Even as they spoke, Malaysia announced that it was considering abolishing the death penalty for drug offences.
For the first time, Denny admitted that the main reason behind this softening on capital punishment has been the need to free Indonesian migrant workers who are on death row overseas.
What prompted this was the public outrage over the execution of an Indonesian maid, Ruyati Sapubi, 54, who was beheaded for murdering her abusive employer in Saudi Arabia in June last year.
Since then, the Indonesian government has set up a fund to pay "blood money" to Saudi families to seek the freedom of its citizens.
The Deputy Justice Minister told Kompas on October 23 that there were a total of 298 Indonesians on death row in other countries as of July last year.
Through its advocacy efforts, Indonesia managed to persuade foreign governments to commute the death sentences of 100 of them, including 44 drug offenders on death row.
"Frankly, if our President is to make an appeal for clemency for our citizens jailed abroad, we can strengthen our case by offering clemency to foreign convicts here," Denny said.
There is no certainty that this would work as the Indonesians, including those on death row for murder and drug trafficking, are jailed mainly in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. No Saudis or Malaysians are known to be on death row in Indonesia.
Indonesia may have second thoughts on the death penalty, but it is still too early to say that it will abolish capital punishment any time soon. It is also not certain that Dr Yudhoyono will grant clemency to the remaining 100 still on death row.
The majority of Indonesians still view the death penalty for drug traffickers as justified.
While it is seen as a rights violation by human rights lobbyists, many Indonesians also view drug abuse as a rights violation of the victims, who cannot lead normal lives because of their dependence on drugs fed by the traffickers.
Hence, it is not surprising that the clemency granted by Dr Yudhoyono to the four condemned prisoners and the leniency given to the drug lord by the Supreme Court unleashed a storm of criticism from public figures that underscored the overwhelming sentiment supporting the death penalty for drug traffickers.
The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which is the highest authority on Islam, and the largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama criticised the clemency decisions, saying that they were a setback to the fight against drug trafficking that posed as serious a threat to the nation as corruption and terrorism.
"The three are extraordinary crimes and should be dealt with seriously through the imposition of extraordinary punishments or the death penalty," said MUI executive chairman Ma'aruf Amin.
It is clear that according clemency to drug offenders goes against the grain of majority opinion in Indonesia. Most people still frown upon any leniency to drug traffickers. Hence, capital punishment will have to stay.
But the dilemma for Indonesian leaders will be how to reconcile this domestic concern with the task of saving the lives of many Indonesians on death row abroad for drug trafficking and murder.
The Straits Times
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