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Indonesia Is Preparing to Execute More than a Dozen People for Drug Crimes

Last year, the government executed 12 foreign citizens and two Indonesians for drug crimes, sparking international outcry and leading several countries to withdraw their ambassadors from Jakarta.

by Samuel Oakford
May 13 2016, 6:20pm

Indonesian police at the ferry crossing for the prison island of Nusakambangan, March 2015. (Photo by Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

Indonesia is quietly preparing to execute 15 death row inmates, including 10 foreigners jailed for drug crimes, according to local media accounts, lawyers and activists. The group reportedly includes Chinese and Pakistani nationals, and inmates from three African countries: Nigeria, Senegal, and Zimbabwe.

Last year, the government of President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, executed 12 foreign citizens and two Indonesians for drug crimes, sparking international outcry and leading several countries to withdraw their ambassadors from Jakarta. The state has executed no people since then, but media reports in recent weeks suggest that officials are once again preparing firing squads on the penal island of Nusakambangan.

On Sunday, the government confirmed that three Indonesian drug offenders had been transferred to the prison there. At the end of April, a Pakistani national, Zulfiqar Ali, was also sent to the island. Unlike last year's rash of executions, none of those who appear in line to have their sentences carried out are from Western countries.

"I think they learned from the previous experience, when they named the people to be executed earlier and some of those prisoners were from European countries or Australian citizens, so their government made a lot of noise," said Papang Hidayat, Indonesia researcher at Amnesty International. "They are learning from their mistakes and trying to limit the period of notification."

Related: Indonesia Executed All But One of Nine Convicted Drug Smugglers, Sparing Filipino Woman

Indonesian authorities have to give at least 72 hours' notification to prisoners that they will be executed, suggesting the latest group of drug offenders won't go before a firing squad until next week at the earliest.

Ricky Gunawan, director of the Jakarta-based Community Legal Aid Institute, has represented foreign nationals in capital cases since 2008. One of his current clients is a Nigerian who ended up on death row after a drug-related conviction.

"He may be listed for execution in this first round, but I'm not sure, " said Gunawan, who noted that the Attorney General's Office had shared little information with him. "We don't know exactly who will be executed, or when it will take place."

Gunawan also represented Rodrigo Gularte, a schizophrenic Brazilian man who was arrested in 2004 after authorities found six kilograms of cocaine in a surfboard he brought to Indonesia. Gularte suffered from paranoid episodes, was delusional, and hallucinated, but never received proper treatment after his arrest. Last year, despite high-level appeals from Brazil, Gularte was executed on Nusakambangan along with two Australians and five others.

Indonesia's use of the death penalty for drug crimes is routinely criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that international law limits the use of the death penalty exclusively to the "crime of intentional killing," and must not be employed as punishment for crimes that fall short of that.

In April, at a UN General Assembly special summit on drug policy, Indonesia was jeered by some diplomats when it launched a specific intervention on the floor defending its right to use the death penalty for drug crimes. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is not alone in employing draconian drug laws, though its routine execution of foreigners does set it apart. As recently as 2012, the regional political and economic bloc ASEAN reaffirmed a goal of a "drug free ASEAN" by 2015.

Related: Harsh Drugs Laws, Rising HIV Rates, and Indonesia's Battle Over Both

In Indonesia, authorities have cut back on the "drug free" slogan, and have instead begun referring to a "drug emergency situation" that requires a government crackdown and the execution of narcotics offenders. In April, during a trip to Germany, Jokowi defended capital punishment, citing the dozens of Indonesians he said died every day from addiction.

"We are currently at a level of emergency in the fight against drugs," said Jokowi. "We carry out the legal process on death sentences carefully and we also ensure all the rights of the convict."

Rights groups counter that there is no evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to dealers, traffickers, or users.

According to Amnesty International, legal proceedings in Indonesia are anything but fair, and defendants often go long periods with no legal counsel at all. Researchers have documented cases of torture to extract confessions. Due to language barriers, foreigners like Zulfiqar may not be able to communicate with their interrogators.

Gunawan said that defense attorneys tend to avoid drug cases entirely because of their heavy stigma in Indonesia.

"They don't want to be associated with drug dealers and drug traffickers," he said. "The majority of death row prisoners never have any competent legal representation from the beginning, and have no one to properly defend their case."

One American, Frank Amado, sits on death row in Indonesia after he was arrested in 2009 for carrying a pound of crystal meth. Unlike other governments that have intervened in the cases of their citizens, including those in Australia, Brazil, and the Philippines, the US government hasn't called for Amado's sentence to be commuted.

In 2011, a press attache at the US Embassy in Jakarta told the Tampa Bay Times, "according to local statutes the crime is punishable by death, and, unfortunately, we see nothing irregular in the case."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford