Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has suggested that the Indonesian government may emulate European governments by moving toward abolishing the death penalty. Jokowi said last week that his government was “very open to options” on alternatives to the death penalty, without elaborating.
Jokowi’s rethink of his staunch support for the death penalty opens the way to a U-turn on a crucial human rights matter.
Indonesia ended a four-year unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in March 2013, and Jokowi has made the execution of convicted drug traffickers a signature issue of his presidency. Jokowi has sought to justify the use of the death penalty on the basis that drug traffickers on death row had “destroyed the future of the nation.” In December 2014, he told students that the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers was an “important shock therapy” for anyone who violates Indonesia’s drug laws.
Since Jokowi took office in 2014, his government has executed a total of 18 convicted drug traffickers in 2015 and 2016. The majority of those executed have been citizens of other countries, and Jokowi consistently rejected their government’s calls for clemency, citing national sovereignty. This prompted withering criticism from the governments of Brazil, Australia – home to two of those executed in 2015 – and the Netherlands.
Some of the international criticism of Widodo’s death penalty policy comes from perceptions of its hypocrisy. Jakarta devotes considerable resources to prevent the execution of Indonesian citizens overseas. Between 2013 and 2015, Indonesia has applied a combination of diplomatic pressure and cash payments to secure commutation of death sentences for 189 Indonesians facing execution overseas. The crimes for those granted clemency include drug trafficking.
Jokowi’s rhetoric now needs to be backed by government action to restore Indonesia’s unofficial moratorium on the death penalty and move toward eventual abolition. There is no place for such cruel and unusual punishment in a rights-respecting country.