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Indonesia Asks If Death Penalty Can Curb Terrorism

Twelve years after the deadly Bali terror bombing, whose suspects were executed, Indonesia struggles with the implications and efficacity of capital punishment.

Anti-death penalty protest in Jakarta
Anti-death penalty protest in Jakarta
Rebecca Henschke

JAKARTA — October 12 marked the 12th anniversary of the Bali Bombings in Kuta that killed more than 200 people. It came just on the heels of the World Day Against the Death Penalty.

The men found guilty of carrying out the Bali bombings were executed. Compared to China, Indonesian judges rarely hand out the death penalty, but there has been an increase in the number of executions in recent years, raising debate in the country about whether killing terrorists is the best way to stop violence.

During a political play staged to mark World Day Against the Death Penalty, in the parking lot of the Jakarta art and cultural center Taman Ismail Mazuki, three men are forced by armed guards to kneel in front of the audience. "Why must we die?" they cry out, before having black hoods placed over their heads. The guards then march forward, turn and pretend to shoot the men dead.

The actors then turn to the crowd and shout, "Abolish the death penalty!"

"For us, the death penalty is a failure of justice, the death penalty is against the constitution, against the fundamental right to life," says Usman Hamid, former head of the leading rights group KONTRAS, which organized this event. "As long as the judicial system remains corrupt and open to abuse in Indonesia, it'll be very difficult for us to make sure that no mistakes or human errors are made in implementing the death penalty.”

They staged the play largely to protest the controversial execution of three Catholic men in 2006 who were convicted of inciting mass violence between Christians and Muslim groups in central Sulawesi. Their executions sparked riots in east Indonesia, with demonstrators saying that the men were scapegoats and that the evidence against them was highly questionable.

More and more executions

"While I believe that those three men were somehow involved in the killings, I am sure that there was someone more powerful behind what took place in Central Sulawesi," says Mugiyanto, who heads a group called the Association of the Families of the Disappeared.

"They were scapegoats," he says. "There is still a very large possibility, with the Indonesian system, that the wrong verdict will be handed out."

Indonesia has had the death penalty since its independence in the 1940s, though judges have rarely used it — and when they did it was only in cases of murder with intent or drug trafficking.

But in recent years the types of crimes punishable by death have expanded to include terrorism and corruption in time of economic crisis. This has meant a dramatic increase in the number of executions.

At the Jakarta demonstration, an activist reads out a letter from Australian Brian Deegan, whose son died in the 2003 Bali attack. "The killing of those men accused of the bombing will not bring back my son or heal the pain in my heart," he wrote.

Support for the ultimate punishment

But many Indonesians disagree with Usman Hamid and the anti-death penalty movement. For example, watching the demonstration from afar is a teenage couple on a date.

"The punishment should fit the crime," one says. "I totally think that the people who did the bombs in Bali should get the death penalty. They killed loads of people."

Next to them are two poor Bajaj drivers for whom the activists' dramatic performance has changed nothing.

"Drug traffickers are responsible for destroying many young lives, the future generation," one says. "So there must be a strong punishment for them. The death penalty must be handed out."

Political support for the death penalty also remains strong. With no political will, the campaign to have it abolished faces an uphill battle.

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