Indonesia's blunder against the Land Down Under

Capital punishment is a barbaric, anachronistic facet of outdated legal and moral codes

The Indonesian government has some seriously gargantuan cojones. Earlier this week, Indonesian President Joko Widodo held steadfast in the capital sentencing of the Bali 9, a small group of drug smugglers who tried to export 8 kilograms of heroin (U.S. street value: $264,000-$800,000) from Indonesia in 2005. The execution comes after 10 years of prison served for the smugglers, as a larger part of the expansive campaign being waged against Indonesia’s excessive “drug emergency”.

While this may be shocking to some Americans, the death penalty is not nearly so ubiquitous throughout the world as it is in our country. Indonesia only promotes capital punishment for three crimes: murder, terrorism and drug trafficking. One of these things is not like the others...

On the other hand, Australia, the home of two of the executed, banished the death penalty 30 years ago. Brazil, the nation of the Bali 9’s third member — a man whose family suggests he was mentally ill — has never executed a person in its modern history as a republic. Only Nigeria, home to four of the executed, also shares with Indonesia the use of capital punishment, for criminals like sodomites. What great company we align with at the banquet of capital punishment.

In this light, it would make sense that Australians are rightfully outraged at what Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called “cruel and unnecessary” punishment induced by the Indonesian government. The two Australians, who had been fully rehabilitated during their decade in prison in the forms of an ordained Christian minister and an in-prison art teacher, were not spared even in the face of personal pleas from their families. Australia recalled its Indonesian ambassador in response.

Déjà vu aside, Brazil has recalled its ambassador already after the first Indonesian execution of a Brazilian citizen this year (which, incidentally, was the first ever execution of a Brazilian abroad). Alienating foreign governments would work well in a true war, perhaps, but it provides no benefit in the drug war that Indonesia is supposedly trying to win.

When your anti-drug policy produces HIV/AIDS infections at record rates in prisons, when it requires steeply buffed statistics in order to garner serious public support, when over half of the people in your capital’s prison are being held exclusively for substance abuse alone, when it strains relations with your international economic and political allies, it becomes high time to consider a new policy.

Execution for drug crimes is unduly severe, drug crisis or not. The wider mindset that such a law is symptomatic of is far more dangerous though. The Draconian insistence on punishment over reform — taken to the ends of these men’s lives — is not in the spirit of justice; it is marked by the spirit of vengeance.

As Americans, we should distance ourselves from the dark impulses that urge us to promote execution for any crimes and should reproach the other governments that do support it. Capital punishment is a barbaric, anachronistic facet of outdated legal and moral codes. If the law neglects respect for human lives, it shouldn’t be surprising when citizens some the same measure of respect towards the law. A law that respects citizens also commands the respect of those same charges, given that the people are treated with dignity and even-handedness. Indonesia and the U.S. alike could both learn some real lessons when it comes to principled, ethical governance.

Reach the columnist at hfinzel@asu.edu or follow @OnlyH_Man on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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