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Indonesia’s justice system in question over push to execute drug convicts

JAKARTA — Sixteen years ago, Zulfiqar Ali left his native Pakistan for Indonesia in search of a new life. Last month, that life was on the verge of ending in front of a firing squad.

Indonesia’s justice system in question over push to execute drug convicts

An ambulance carrying the body of an executed prisoner leaving Nusakambangan last month. Researchers have found that many condemned convicts were tortured by the police into confessing. Photo: Reuters

JAKARTA — Sixteen years ago, Zulfiqar Ali left his native Pakistan for Indonesia in search of a new life. Last month, that life was on the verge of ending in front of a firing squad.

Ali has been on Indonesia’s death row since 2005, after he was convicted of heroin trafficking. A government-ordered inquiry later found that he was probably innocent. Still, in July, he was one of 14 convicts, most of them foreigners, who were taken to the prison island of Nusakambangan off Java’s southern coast to be put to death.

Minutes before they were to be executed, on July 29, Ali and nine other convicts were given a reprieve, for reasons the government has yet to explain. But four were shot dead as scheduled, including a Nigerian who supporters say was framed. And Ali, like the rest who were spared, remains condemned.

More than a year after Indonesia drew international censure by putting to death 12 foreigners convicted of drug crimes, the country has resumed a war on narcotics by way of executions — and has again put a spotlight on its profoundly flawed justice system.

Critics in Indonesia and abroad say those flaws go so deep that the country should not employ the death penalty at all. Researchers have found that many condemned convicts were tortured by the police into confessing, did not receive access to lawyers or were otherwise denied fair trials.

The resumption of executions means “that the government has ignored that there is something seriously wrong with our judiciary and law enforcers”, said Mr Robertus Robet, a lecturer and researcher at the State University of Jakarta’s sociology department. He characterised the government as “trigger-happy”. “When you execute someone, you execute the possibility of finding out the truth,” he said.

Amnesty International has denounced “the manifestly flawed administration of justice in Indonesia that resulted in flagrant human rights violations”. Similar concerns have been raised by the United Nations and the European Union, which sent a delegation to try to persuade Indonesia to spare inmates who were condemned to die last year.

Indonesia has long had the death penalty, but its use was sporadic in the years before President Joko Widodo took office in October 2014. Declaring drug abuse a “national emergency,” Mr Widodo denied clemency appeals from 64 death row inmates who had been convicted of drug crimes, most of them foreigners, and the government set a goal of executing all of them by the end of 2015.

That did not happen, but five drug convicts were put to death in January of that year, and eight more in April. An Indonesian was also executed for murder in January. Among the convicts executed in April, seven of whom were foreigners, were Andrew Chan, 31, and Myuran Sukumaran, 34, Australians who were arrested in 2005 trying to smuggle heroin out of the resort island of Bali.

The men admitted their guilt, but their lawyers said the judge in the case was corrupt, having offered a lesser sentence in exchange for a bribe. Indonesia rejected appeals by the Australian government to spare them, and Australia withdrew its ambassador in protest.

Also executed in April was Rodrigo Gularte, 42, a Brazilian convicted of drug smuggling who had repeatedly been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Indonesian law forbids the execution of mentally ill convicts.

Concerns about arbitrary sentencing, allegations of corruption and wrongful convictions have been raised about the cases against some of the convicts spared last month and some who were executed, including the Nigerian, Humphrey Jefferson Ejike Eleweke.

Eleweke was arrested in 2003 after police found heroin at a restaurant he ran in Jakarta. He said an employee had planted it. His lawyers say the police beat him until he confessed.

They also say that, by law, an eleventh-hour appeal for clemency issued to Mr Widodo should have automatically halted his execution.

Last week, legal activists filed a complaint with a judicial watchdog against Indonesia’s Attorney-General, saying that Eleweke’s execution and those of two others should have been stopped because of those appeals, according to local news reports.

“We cannot have the death penalty here because of the judicial system — it’s problematic, it’s dysfunctional,” said Mr Ricky Gunawan, director of the Community Legal Aid Institute, a nongovernmental organisation that represented Eleweke.

Another allegation of corruption emerged just before the executions last month, when one of the men put to death, an Indonesian named Freddy Budiman, was quoted as saying he had paid senior law enforcement officials more than US$40 million (S$53.8 million) to let his drug smuggling operation continue before he was arrested.

That accusation was included in a report released by a rights activist, Haris Azhar, who had interviewed Budiman in prison. Shortly thereafter, the police, the military and Indonesia’s anti-narcotics board, all of which were implicated in the report, filed a criminal defamation complaint against Azhar. Last week, Mr Widodo ordered those agencies to investigate the corruption allegations.

The case of Ali, the Pakistani who was spared execution, has also raised concerns. Ali, who immigrated to Indonesia in 2000, was accused of drug dealing in 2004 by a friend, Gurdip Singh, who had been caught with heroin. Singh later said the police had pressured him and offered a reduced sentence to name accomplices. Ali’s lawyers say their client was arrested without a warrant at his home, where no drugs were found, and signed a confession after being beaten so badly in custody that he needed two operations.

Though Ali retracted his confession and Singh withdrew his accusation, both men were sentenced to death in 2005.

But the severity of Ali’s beating drew attention to the case, and the government ordered an unusual inquiry, which concluded that he was likely to be innocent. The government never acted on those findings, and Ali and Singh were among those who nearly faced a firing squad.

“He was never involved in drugs,” Ali’s wife, Siti Rohani, who lives in West Java province with their three children, said in an interview.

A spokesman for Mr Widodo, Johan Budi, denied that the judicial system was dysfunctional, saying the executions had followed legal procedures.

Ali, along with Singh and several of the other convicts who were given reprieves, is still in prison on Nusakambangan Island, where Indonesia conducts executions.

Ali’s wife said she and her husband’s family in Pakistan were in a torturous state of limbo. “We’re just confused because there is no certainty about my husband’s fate,” she said.

Mr Muhammad Rum, a spokesman for the Attorney-General’s office, declined to explain why Ali and the other convicts had been given reprieves, saying only that it was “for judicial and nonjudicial reasons”. But he said the executions would eventually be carried out. THE NEW YORK TIMES

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