Drug suspects held by police in Bogor, earlier this month. (Antara Photo//Jafkhairi)

Commentary: Death Penalty Vital in Saving Indonesia From Drug Scourge

BY :ASTARI ANJANI & DIMAS MUHAMAD

JANUARY 23, 2015

“Bloodless murderers” is the term that Kamaluddin Lubis, a prominent activist, once used to describe drug dealers — arguing that they ought to be executed for their crimes. To some such a label might be over the top, but it succinctly portrays this man's misery: drug abuse claimed the life of one of his sons. And he is not alone. Government data shows there are 4.5 million drugs users in Indonesia, and every single day around 50 of them lose their lives. In 2013, the surge in drug abuse was the highest among students, with an increase of 60 percent. Keeping this in mind, it is easy to predict what kind of future this country has if nothing is done to halt this scourge.

The government understandably will not just sit back as more and more Indonesians fall prey to drug abuse. That is why the government rightly is hell-bent on enforcing the law against those who are responsible for the spread of illicit drugs, including by putting to death drug traffickers, regardless of their nationality.

Of course the situation becomes more intricate when those executed are foreign nationals. Unsurprisingly, the countries whose citizens are executed in Indonesia will be disppointed, and some have even recalled their ambassadors from Indonesia for consultation after a total of six drug convicts were put to death on Jan. 18. Although this reaction is understandable, some caveats are in order.

As stated earlier, Indonesia is currently dealing with a severe drug crisis involving millions of people, so effective law enforcement is indispensable to deter others from committing the same crime.

Despite many claims to the contrary, several studies have affirmed the deterrent effect of the death penalty. A Wall Street Journal article mentions that every execution of a murder convict prevents 74 murders in the following year. And in Singapore, which applies the death penalty, the number of drug offenders has declined by two third since the 1990s.

The death penalty obviously cannot be our only weapon — more robust preventive measures and rehabilitation are needed — but it should remain an important part of our comprehensive strategy to win the war on drugs.

One can argue that capital punishment is not effective enough or inhumane, but when all is said and done every country has the sovereign right to prosecute criminals in accordance with its national laws and international law norms that it agreed to. Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Indonesia has ratified, allows the death penalty under certain conditions, which Indonesia has met.

The death sentence can only be imposed for the most serious crimes, and Indonesia deems drug trafficking to fall into this category. Despite the debate on what is meant by “the most serious crimes,” the ICCPR’s preparatory works show that the omission in defining the term was intended by the negotiating parties to leave room for state-specific interpretation.

There is indeed a trend toward restricting the scope of the term, as expressed in various non-binding statements in United Nations forums. For example, the UN Economic and Social Council Resolution 1984/50 limits the most serious crimes to intentional offenses resulting in lethal consequences. Nevertheless, even with the narrower interpretation of the term, drug trafficking would still qualify as one of the most serious crimes since it is an intentional offense that contributes to the death of too many of our people.

Moreover, the death penalty is carried out pursuant to the judgement of the Indonesian Supreme Court, the final court of appeal within the Indonesian judiciary, after a fair trial at the District Court and the High Court. Offenders are also offered the chance to ask the president for clemency, which in the latest cases was denied. Simply put, the rendering of the death sentence in Indonesia has been done in accordance with due process of law.

Other countries whose citizens are convicted can raise their objection, but the final verdict rests with the country where the prosecution takes place. Indonesia is fighting tooth and nail to protect its citizens abroad, but we do so in conformity with local laws. And when a verdict is handed down, we respect this decision even if we disagree. After all: when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Regardless of the recent controversy, the Indonesian government is determined to maintain and bolster ties with the countries that have summoned their ambassadors. It is not unusual for countries to have disagreements, but our shared interests and mutually beneficial partnerships — such as on trade and investment — are too profound to sacrifice.

While governments, scholars and NGOs are rigorously debating this imbroglio, the voices of the victims of drug abuse and their families often remain unheard. But the Indonesian government should be commended for not turning its back on Kamaluddin Lubis and millions of others who have gone through unspeakable misery. For them and for countless others who are at risk of being ensnared by the drug menace, the government should make sure that those responsible for this scourge pay the steepest price.

Astari Anjani and Dimas Muhamad work at the Policy Analysis and Development Agency of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed here are their own. 

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