Forced confessions, sentencing minors and a lack of fair trial. Amnesty International’s Papang Hidayat outlines troubling flaws in Indonesia’s legal system when it comes to death row cases.
Over the course of 2015, President Joko Widodo’s administration has executed 14 individuals including 12 foreign nationals.
It marks a regressive trend in the country, and a decisive move away from the policy of previous governments that had seen the authorities largely put executions on hold while also trying to prevent capital punishment of Indonesians abroad.
The resumption of executions raises serious concerns relating to Indonesia’s compliance with its international human rights obligations.
A new report from Amnesty International, published Thursday, underlines that there have been serious violations of fair trial standards, including the use of forced confessions, in cases where death sentences have been imposed.
Combined with studies that question the extent of the ‘drug emergency’ under which Joko Widodo has justified these executions, as well as the failure to demonstrate the efficacy of the death penalty as a tool to tackle crime, there is a strong case to reassess the administration’s current policy.
Drugs, the death penalty and flawed statistics
Joko Widodo has repeatedly stated that the resumption of the death penalty is part of an effort to combat Indonesia’s drug problem. He argues that the 14 executions, all of which were of people convicted for drug-related offences, were a necessary step to counter a ‘state of emergency’ in which 50 people were dying daily due to their drug dependency.
This reasoning is worrying on several fronts, not least because drug-related crimes do not reach the threshold of the ‘most serious crimes’ which is the only category of crime for which international law allows the death penalty.
Further, there is no credible evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect in relation to crime. Indeed, the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime opposes the death penalty for drug-related offences.
The president has estimated that 2.6 per cent of the population has been using drugs, although researchers have noted that these figures do not paint an accurate picture of the number who are harmfully dependent on drugs; rather they reflect a projection of all drug users – including those who have only used drugs once in their life.
Closer examination of the pre-trial and trial proceedings in cases resulting in death sentences provide further cause for concern, undermining the government’s claims that the use of the death penalty is in line with international law.
Amnesty International’s report examined 12 cases of inmates on death row, of whom four were among those executed in 2015, finding significant violations of international law and standards relating to fair trial.
Most of the defendants did not have access to legal counsel in the crucial early days – in some cases in the first three months – after their arrest and some had no access to a lawyer during later stages of their trial and appeals.
Yet, even when defendants did have legal counsel, they were frequently not of their own choice and the competence of such counsel was often questionable. In an extreme case, Yusman Telaumbanua, and another man were appointed a lawyer who requested the death penalty for them, even though the prosecutor was seeking life imprisonment and Yusman himself requested a lenient sentence.
In several cases defendants claimed that they had been subjected to coercion and torture or other ill-treatment. In five cases, police allegedly coerced suspects into signing ‘confessions’ – often after severe beatings – which were then accepted by the court as evidence despite the defendants complaining to the court that they had been made under coercion.
The Pakistani national Zulfiqar Ali even told the court that police beatings had led to a deterioration of his health that required stomach and kidney surgery. Yet allegations of torture weren’t investigated in neither Zulfiqar Ali’s case, nor the other cases examined.
Indonesian authorities also have handed out the death penalty to a child (under age 18 at the time of the offence) and to a person with mental disabilities, notwithstanding international and national legal provisions that exempt both from the death penalty.
In the latter case, Brazilian national Rodrigo Gularte was executed in April 2015 despite having been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Rodrigo’s medical condition was raised during his trial but the court did not take it into consideration.
Compliance with international fair trial standards was also severely lacking in cases involving foreign nationals, in particular in regard to their rights of equal access to the courts, the assistance of an interpreter when needed and the right to communicate with a representative of their government.
In the case of Nigerian national Jamiu Owolabi Abashin police even recorded his country of origin as the non-existent ‘Republic of Cordova,’ a failure that under Indonesian law can render a verdict invalid. Despite Jamiu’s lawyer submitting a civil suit concerning this issue, Jamiu was executed on 29 April 2015, before the suit could be heard.
Upholding legal standards
Indonesia has come a long way since Suharto’s New Order, and no one can deny the country has undergone major improvements in human rights over the last two decades. Yet, this report is not the first to identify significant failures to comply with international law and standards, as national NGOs and the Indonesian Human Rights Commission have also reached similar findings.
This is not to dispute the severe harm that can be caused by drug dependency, but the policies currently in place do more harm than good and violate human rights.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime and we urge the Indonesian authorities to take steps to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to the eventual abolition of the death penalty.
But as a first step, an independent body should be established to review all current death row prisoners’ cases with a view to commuting the death sentences, in particular where it has been imposed for drugs offences or where the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.
Papang Hidayat is Amnesty International’s (International Secretariat) Researcher on Indonesia.
Read Amnesty International’s full report, ‘Flawed Justice’ here.