What's behind Indonesia's executions of drug traffickers?

Indonesia's government says the country is experiencing a 'drugs emergency.' Others say domestic political questions are at work.

Achmad Ibrahim/AP
Indonesian police carry a coffin at a funeral home in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Nigerian death row prisoner Seck Osmanu, who was executed by firing line on Friday. Indonesia enforces the death penalty for foreigners convicted of drug crimes.

Indonesia executed four people, including three foreigners, by firing squad on Friday in the latest round of executions for drug offenses carried out by the government.

The executions came just past midnight in a prison on the island of Nusakambangan, off the coast of Java Island. Two of the men were Nigerian citizens and a third was Senegalese, reported CNN.

Indonesian authorities had earlier said that 14 death row inmates would face the firing squad on Friday, but the remaining 10 appear to have been granted at least a temporary reprieve. Deputy attorney general Noor Rachmad said that the decision about whether the others would face the death penalty would later be made public, according to local media reports.

"Right now, we do not know whether the remaining death row inmates have appealed for clemency," Mr. Rachmad told Indonesia's Antara News. "Based on the result of our study with the existing team, only four were to be executed for the time being."

Indonesia is one of more than two dozen countries in which drug traffickers can get the death penalty, according to Harm Reduction International, an nongovernmental organization that advises the United Nations on drug and public-health policy. And it’s among a handful of countries that apply it most frequently, along with China and southeast Asian neighbors like Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore.

Last year, Indonesian firing squads executed 13 people for drug crimes, nearly all of whom were foreigners. And 29 new death sentences were handed down for drug-related offenses, too – compared with 17 for murder, according to Amnesty International.

Dan Slater, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who specializes in Southeast Asia, said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor that the latest executions were “sadly routine” in the staunchly conservative society.

“This is part of a general ethos in Indonesia that to be considered a member of the community, you have to be a decent person,” he said. “It’s not unusual in the region, and it’s not a new phenomenon.”

But drug-crime executions have grown increasingly common under President Joko Widodo, who entered office in October 2014 with a reputation as an political outsider and anti-corruption reformer. In the 15 years prior to Mr. Widodo’s term, noted the New Yorker in 2015, only seven people were killed for drug offenses.

Widodo’s government says the measure helps deter trafficking, though human rights advocates say there’s no evidence of its effectiveness. As he has struggled to establish sway over Indonesia’s vastly diverse political coalitions, wrote the magazine, he may be pursuing executions of foreign drug traffickers in order to assert his credibility.

“It’s really popular with the public,” says Jeremy Menchik, a professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, who has written extensively about religion and politics in Indonesia.

“There’s been a moral panic for a couple of years now about drug addiction,” he told the Monitor, adding that fears of an epidemic are not born out by statistics. “My sense is, he can be seen as responding to that sense of panic and urgency by implementing these draconian policies.” 

Both the United Nations and the European Union issued statements denouncing the execution of the four men. And diplomatic blowback from past executions has seen countries like Australia and the Netherlands call home their ambassadors.

“Indonesia is a passionately nationalistic country,” said Dr. Slater, “and people don’t like external interference ... [anti-death penalty] activists are more likely to get more traction if it’s an Indonesian on death row than if it’s a foreigner.”

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