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Indonesia Executed Five Foreign Nationals on Drug Charges and the World Is Pissed

Just after midnight on Sunday, Indonesia executed six drug offenders by firing squad. International observers see the executions as harsh, especially since five of the six prisoners were foreign nationals.

Republic of Indonesia Marines practicing on a Pindad SPR sniper rifle. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.

Just after midnight on Sunday Indonesia executed six drug offenders by firing squad in what President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo called "important shock therapy" in his war on narcotics.

International observers see the executions as harsh and disproportionate punishments from a reformist president they'd hoped would prove to be a positive influence on human rights. The killings also sparked international backlash, as five of the six prisoners were foreign nationals. As this execution was only the first in a promised wave, many nations with inmates on Indonesia's death row are understandably angry and on edge, complicating Jokowi's move toward a firm, nationalist foreign policy.

Among those executed, only one was a drug manufacturer—Ang Kiem Soei of the Netherlands, who was churning out ecstasy pills by the thousands. The remaining five—Daniel Enemyo of Nigeria, Marco Archer Cardoso Moreira of Brazil, Rani Andriani of Indonesia, Solomon Chibuike Okafor of Malawi, and Tran Thi Bich Hahn of Vietnam—were substantial smugglers.

Brazil (which has one more national facing execution in Indonesia) and the Netherlands, upset after personal appeals and condemnations by their heads of state failed to sway Jokowi, recalled their ambassadors from the country on Sunday for consultations. Nigeria (which has 12 nationals on Indonesia's death row) called in the Indonesian ambassador in Abuja to explain the incident.

These diplomatic measures and a general media firestorm have not moved Indonesia, whose officials insist that the executions followed due process and will serve as a powerful deterrent.

"What we do is merely aimed at protecting our nation from the danger of drugs," Town Hall quoted Indonesian Attorney General H. M. Prasetyo as saying. Voice of America also quoted Prasetyo: "It is a form of assertiveness of Indonesia's government that we will never be in compromise with the perpetrators, dealers, and drug syndicates."

Despite high hopes for Jokowi, the first Indonesian leader from beyond the military or political elite since independence and a former slum dweller, no one should be too surprised by this move, given the president's firm support of the death sentence leading up to his inauguration last fall. Already in early December, Jokowi drew limited criticism for his decision to execute five Indonesian prisoners (three drug offenders), schedule 20 more executions for 2015, and reject clemency appeals from 64 drug offenders on death row, including many foreign nationals.

Yet Indonesia is not alone in its execution of foreigners. The United States itself has executed about 30 since 1976, although almost exclusively on murder-plus charges. Saudi Arabia leads the way in outsider executions, in some years killing as many as a dozen foreigners a week—one such execution of a Myanmarese woman, who insisted she was innocent before being publicly beheaded, was caught on film last week. And in the region, states like China and Singapore have executed foreign drug offenders far more regularly and widely than Indonesia.

The outrage over Indonesia's killings stems partially from the fact that Brazil and the Netherlands especially oppose the death penalty and put up high profile and fierce fights for their nationals' lives. It also stems from the fear that Indonesia, which had placed a moratorium on the death penalty from 2008 to 2013 thanks in part to (unresolved) concerns over corruption and inefficiency in the justice system, is backsliding toward brutal and summary justice.

"It seemed under [former President Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono [that] Indonesia was moving away from capital punishment, toward abolition," Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam, and Society at Australia's Melbourne Law School told VICE. "This signals that it's absolutely moved back. I think a lot of people's expectations were raised during that period that Indonesia was changed and now this government [following Yudhoyono's late-term reinstallation of the death penalty] says firmly, no."

Returning to Indonesia's capital punishment status quo, especially for drug offenses, is popular locally. Yudhoyono faced severe popular criticism for reducing an Australian drug trafficker's sentence in 2012—including from Jokowi's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

Many in the nation (and the region) see drug crimes as a form of mass murder, given the lives they claim through addiction and overdose. Indonesia, where 45 percent of all Southeast Asia's drugs circulate, asserts that 40 to 50 of its nationals die daily in drug-related incidents. Many of those on death row are there for drug crimes charges, and up to one-third are foreigners.

This explains Jokowi's unabashed and firm rhetoric on the issue, posted to Facebook on Sunday:

"The war against the drug mafia should not be half-hearted measures," the president wrote, "because drugs have really ruined the good life of the drug users and their families. There is no happiness in life to be gained from drug abuse. The country must be present and fight with drug syndicates head-on. A healthy Indonesia is Indonesia without drugs."

In truth, given the region's dim view of drugs, Lindsey believes Indonesia's crackdown is mild. "Most East Asian states are very tough on drug law. Both Singapore and Malaysia have mandatory death sentences when drug offenses involve amounts over a particular limit. That is not the case in Indonesia. The death penalty is discretionary [there]. It's in line with a lot of its neighbors. And it's probably on the lighter end."

But Jokowi likely feels the need to take every opportunity to appear tough on drugs and indifferent to global outrage, given questions over his decisiveness and resolve raised in recent elections.

"In the campaign [Jokowi's] opponent was [ex-general] Prabowo Subianto, who made great capital out of being seen as decisive and firm, in particular indicating that he would stand up strongly to foreign countries interfering in Indonesian affairs," explains Lindsey. "And that put a lot of pressure on the new president to match those sorts of claims."

"He is a president who only has a minority in their equivalent of the Congress, and he's under a lot of pressure to be tough, decisive, and not bow to foreign countries."

Jokowi's aid and Indonesian think tank leader Rizal Sukma may have foreshadowed such a harsh and standoffish move back in October 2014, when he pointed out that in the past Indonesians had tried to make nice with world leaders, but Jokowi would aim for nationalist pragmatism.

"You can't eat an international image," the New York Times quoted Sukma as saying.

The president already showed himself willing to take firm and controversial action in December 2014, about a month into his tenure, when he embarked on a campaign to sink or impound the thousands of boats he believes are illegally fishing in Indonesia's waters at grave cost to the local economy. By year's end, he had downed at least two Papua New Guinean, five Thai, and three Vietnamese boats, confiscated hundreds of others, and was threatening to extend his hardline territorial integrity policies against incursions by major partners like Australia and China.

A stark rejection of Yudhoyono's thousands-of-friends-and-zero-enemies foreign policy, this cast Jokowi as a serious player regionally. Now the execution of inmates from around the world shows his willingness to project Indonesia's sense of immovable national integrity further.

David McRae , a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne's Asia Institute specializing in Indonesian foreign policy, told VICE, "To many Indonesians, the executions will make [Jokowi] look firm, particularly when other countries protest."

Yet while the executions have bought Jokowi political capital at home, with state spokespeople brushing off the notion that international backlash will develop into a problem, some observers fear that the portent of further executions could upset relations with the nation's key partners.

"Many of Indonesia's international partners have citizens on its death row for narcotics crimes," says McRae, "including China, the Netherlands, the UK, Brazil, and Australia. Executing foreigners always carries the risk of a public uproar in their home countries, which their governments must respond to."

The potential damage from future executions has already proven tricky in Indonesia's relations with its biggest and most important neighbor, Australia. Two nationals of that country, arrested in Bali in a notorious heroin smuggling case in 2005, currently face execution under Jokowi's campaign. By all accounts the two are model prisoners, yet despite Indonesian provisions for reduced sentences for such inmates all appeals over the past decade have fallen on deaf ears. Although Australia's prime minister, Tony Abbott, has stated that the convicts' executions wouldn't destabilize Australian-Indonesian relations, foreign minister Julie Bishop has condemned the prospect and floated the idea of recalling Australia's ambassador if the shootings take place.

"Australia abolished the death penalty some time ago and has been fairly outspoken about the death penalty for many years," explains Lindsey. "It's a big issue in Australia. Indonesia has never executed an Australian before.

"Indonesia is Australia's Mexico, but the differences are far more extreme between the two. What happens in Indonesia affects Australia."

Locals also fear that these executions will jeopardize their co-nationals on death row abroad.

"Indonesia has [in the past] conducted blanket advocacy for all of its citizens facing the death penalty abroad," says McRae, "including for narcotics crimes, since the execution of an Indonesian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia in 2011."

Indonesia may still be able to argue for pardons in particular cases, but any overarching effort to protect its citizens will likely come across as a form of hypocrisy easy to ignore.

That's the kicker. Riding into power as an embattled populist leader, Jokowi's felt the need to turn his gaze inward to building a strong base and reputation at home and differentiating himself from his hated predecessors. But if he bends international tolerance too far, it will snap back around and slap him in the face, endangering the well-being of the people he hopes to protect and curry favor with. So for now the big question is just how good of a tight-rope walker Jokowi is.