Bandung’s Asian-African Conference Approaches, as More Drug Traffickers Face the Firing Squad

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Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan of the Bali Nine are still scheduled to be executed, even though legal appeals have postponed the executions indefinitely. Amidst controversy, Tony Abbott asks Jokowi to return his phone call.

Back in January, Edith Visvanathan stood in front of a crowd in Sydney. “Please, give him a second chance. Don’t kill him, please,” said the elderly woman earnestly. “He has proved himself. He is a good boy.” Visvanathan, whose plea was directed at Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, is the grandmother of Myuran Sukumaran, a convicted drug trafficker on death row
in Indonesia.

For those who haven’t been keeping up with the story, Sukumaran was arrested in April 2005 for his involvement in the infamous Bali Nine case, in which nine Australians attempted to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin out of the country. The case has been a controversial global issue for the better part of a decade now, and at the time, the estimated street value of the group’s contraband was around US$3.1 million.

In the years that followed, sentences were doled out to the convicts, ranging from 20 years to life in prison. Bali 9 members Scott Rush, Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen, Si Yi Chen and Matthew Norman were all sentenced to death when their first appeals were rejected. Their sentences were subsequently changed to life imprisonment after further appeals.

You’ve probably heard it on the aeroplane when you land in Jakarta: “The penalty for drug trafficking is death.” The statement is jarring, and some passengers routinely double-check their baggage to ensure they aren’t unknowingly carrying someone else’s contraband. However, this message seems to often fall by the wayside, as the majority of drug traffickers convicted in Indonesia never actually end up taking bullets in the chest. The Bali Nine is an interesting example of this, as the majority of the group have been allowed to continue breathing, although imprisoned for life. Additionally, over the past two months, Jokowi has even commuted the death penalty for three men convicted of premeditated murder in Indonesia.

Evidently, narcotics are something Jokowi is taking seriously, declaring a national emergency on illegal drugs earlier this year. As Indonesia Expat previously reported, the archipelago claims to be one of the hardest nations on drug users and traffickers. Statistics from a 2008 survey by the University of Indonesia’s Centre for Health Research and the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) concluded that 41 people die daily because of drug use. Based on those stats, the argument could be made that the existence of foreign drug traffickers is not the sole catalyst in the country’s drug epidemic, but rather, poor domestic law enforcement and police corruption could play a bigger role. In January, five Indonesian police officers were arrested on drug charges; one had over 7,000 ecstasy pills and 700 grams of methamphetamine.

Temperatures Rise in the Timor Sea
Sukumaran and Chan were not as lucky as their accomplices, and the two are set to be executed soon. However, Australia’s SBS reported that Chan and Sukumaran will get at least one more visit from their families, an event that took place on Monday, as prime minister Tony Abbott tries to keep the diplomatic channels with Australia and Indonesia open to stop the executions.

Jokowi has yet to return Abbott’s phone call from two weeks ago with an answer to Abbott’s request for clemency, and legal appeals of death row prisoners delay the firing squad. “He might think that the subject has been well and truly discussed, but my request for a phone call stands and it’s up to the Indonesian president to respond,” Abbott told reporters in Sydney.

Harm Reduction International is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. “The death penalty for drug offences represents the sharp end of the world’s failed war on drugs, disproportionately punishing the vulnerable while failing to tackle entrenched forces of crime and corruption,” said Dr Rick Lines, executive director of the NGO in a statement earlier this month.

Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, recently told Indonesia Expat that it’s very important for countries like Indonesia to build effective law enforcement and justice responses for narcotics offences. Douglas believes all nations should cooperate with neighbouring countries to control drug production and trafficking. “A balanced approach will help minimise the negative impact of drugs,” says Douglas.

Chan and Sukumaran courtesy of news.com.au

Jokowi’s hard-line stance on drug traffickers could be interpreted as the opposite of balanced. As a result, the diplomatic relationship between Australia and Indonesia is stressed, to say the least. Incidentally, Abbott’s policy of the turning back of asylum-seeking boats bound for Australia from Indonesia has not helped the situation for Chan and Sukumaran. Additionally, Indonesia recently announced it would scrap several visa requirements for foreign tourists who want to visit the archipelago. The changes will apply to an additional 30 countries, but Australia is not one of them.

Indonesia’s tourism minister Arif Yahya denies this decision is tied to the planned executions of Chan and Sukumaran, who are among eight other convicted traffickers facing the firing squad. Nevertheless, last year Australians accounted for 12 percent of foreigners that vacationed in Indonesia, according to the Central Statistics Agency. If what Yahya says is true, this means that Indonesia’s tourism ministry could be ignoring a substantial opportunity to boost the economy for no official reason. Singapore and Malaysia are the only two countries ahead of Australia in terms of tourist numbers in Indonesia. However, both nations are also a member of ASEAN, and can, therefore, travel in Indonesia without visas anyway.

An Opportunity for Mercy on Drug Traffickers 
There may yet be hope for the two Australians, however, as local media outlet Kompas reported last week, a court spokesman said the next batch of executions could now be delayed for “months.”

On Thursday 19 March, Government officials said it could take months to resolve legal appeals before sentences are carried out for both Sukumaran and Chan, as well as up to nine other drug smugglers.

Rumours are also circulating that the executions of up to 11 drug smugglers, including Chan and Sukumaran, may not take place until after the Asian-African Conference in Jakarta ends in late April.

The first Asian-African Conference, which commenced 60 years ago, was attended mainly by countries that were emerging from colonial rule and led to the 10-point Bandung Declaration on human rights. The declaration, which remains in force today, states that member nations respect fundamental human rights and adhere to the purposes and principles of the United Nations charter.

“This is the perfect moment for the world to remember that Indonesia has played a fundamental role in global history, which we hope to rekindle through this commemorative event,” said President Jokowi in a statement.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirms that there will be no Australian representatives at the conference. However, if President Jokowi wanted to use the occasion to show goodwill to the world and regain global popularity, he could do well politically to offer clemency to the traffickers during the event without being perceived as a leader that is soft on drug crime. Only
time will tell, as the next couple months may define Joko’s presidency.

This article has been updated to include corrections of the Bali Nine attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin out of the country. 

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Leighton Cosseboom covers a variety of topics related to news, business, and technology in the region.