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Indonesia's fatal war on drugs

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrives at the ASEAN Summit in Clark, Pampanga, Philippines, 12 November, 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro).

In Brief

Under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), Indonesia's war on drugs has taken on a deadly edge. Initially, Jokowi focused on judicial executions, declaring in December 2014 that his government would empty death row of its 64 prisoners sentenced on drugs charges in order to tackle a 'drugs emergency'. Action followed quickly — his government executed 14 narcotics prisoners within six months.


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Only four further prisoners have faced the firing squad for drugs crimes since, with no executions now for 15 months. But as judicial executions have receded, fatal shootings of narcotics suspects have surged. Indonesian human rights monitor Kontras estimates police and the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) fatally shot 106 drugs suspects between September 2016 and September 2017, with the vast majority of these shootings taking place in 2017. The shootings have continued since the release of their data, with at least a further six drugs suspects shot dead during October.

As with the judicial executions, this uptick in killings has coincided with hardline rhetoric from Jokowi and his senior law enforcement officials. Jokowi himself was one of the first to speak approvingly of shootings, calling on police on World Anti-Narcotics Day in 2016 to shoot narcotics criminals if the law allowed it (before noting it was fortunate the law did not). National police chief Tito Karnavian was one of those to echo the president’s call. In January, he held a press conference at the police mortuary, telling drugs distributors they would end up there if they resisted arrest.

In October 2017 alone, BNN Chief Budi Waseso was reported to have questioned whether those criticising fatal shootings are themselves part of the drugs mafia, said drugs criminals should be cut up and fed to crocodiles, and joked that angels in the afterlife would forgive his officers for killing drugs distributors since they have killed thousands themselves. It is easy to see how such statements could create a permissive environment for extrajudicial killings.

Several common threads run between these two manifestations — judicial executions and extrajudicial killings — of Indonesia’s deadly response to drugs. Although the Indonesian government has insisted it is simply enforcing the law in both instances, its position is tenuous. Certainly, the death penalty remains on the books for narcotics crimes in Indonesia. But drugs executions have become anomalous internationally, conducted only by a handful of mostly authoritarian states.

Even as a retentionist state, the lawfulness of narcotics executions under Jokowi has come under criticism. For example, the Indonesian Ombudsman in July criticised the Attorney General’s Department for executing a prisoner who had submitted a plea for clemency, an action it judged to be in violation of Indonesia’s Clemency Law. Questions of bias have also been raised over the high proportion of foreigners among those executed and on death row for drugs crimes. Fifteen of the 18 people to face the firing squad under Jokowi have been foreign citizens.

The legality of fatally shooting drugs suspects appears more tenuous still. As Jim Della-Giacoma has pointed out, police regulations in Indonesia permit the use of fatal force only ‘if strictly necessary to preserve human life’. He notes that regulations allow officers to use firearms only when facing extraordinary circumstances, for self defence against threat of death and/or serious injury, or for the defence of others against threat of death and/or serious injury.

This is a much more restrictive set of provisions than the encouragement police have received, including from their own commanders, to fatally shoot drug suspects if they simply resist arrest. Moreover, more than a third of fatal shooting in the first half of 2017 took place well after the initial arrest, often at a secondary location. It seems extremely unlikely that circumstances satisfying the above conditions would so often arise well after a suspect had been taken into custody.

Both judicial executions and fatal shootings of drugs suspects serve the political interests of powerful actors. Jokowi’s turn to drugs executions at the beginning of his term provided both him and his beleaguered attorney general the appearance of a quick win, and allowed Jokowi to present himself as a firm leader. The government appeared surprised by the international furore these executions stirred up. The attorney general has subsequently justified the more limited use of executions as reflecting the need to focus on economic development.

Human rights lawyer Ricky Gunawan, head of the Jakarta-based Community Legal Aid Institute, sees fatal drugs shootings as similarly allowing the government to maintain a hardline image on drugs, but without the furore the executions created. ‘Jokowi is less likely to receive international pressure because the numbers [of fatal shootings] are much lower if compared to Duterte,’ he told SBS in July.

The government has not been able to present any convincing evidence that executions or fatal shootings have curbed drugs crime. Yet its ‘drugs emergency’ rhetoric remains undiminished, with the scale of the drugs problem allegedly justifying the continuing use of lethal measures. Indonesia’s fatal war on drugs is yet to approach the scale of the Philippines, even if its rhetoric and methods are increasingly similar. But nor is there any sign of it receding.

Dave McRae is a senior lecturer at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne. He also co-hosts the Talking Indonesia podcast.

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