Under the Influence: The “Bali Nine” and the Effectiveness of the Death Penalty

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by Ashlee Pitts

Warning sign for drug trafficker violation in Jakarta. Photo credit: Serenity, Wikimedia Commons.
Warning sign for drug trafficker violation in Jakarta. Photo credit: Serenity, Wikimedia Commons.

Bali, a beautiful island with stunning views of the ocean, breathtaking volcanic mountains and daily Balinese offerings made by the local women that lie peacefully on nearly every corner. Bali continues to be a popular vacation destination for visitors all over the world. The excitement of the tourists after stepping off the plane and witnessing the initial scenery through the windows of Denpasar airport quickly vanishes when the drug trafficking warning appears. The less than subtle cautionary sign enlightens drug smugglers of the consequences that would follow if they are caught with any illicit contraband. The Indonesian government assures the world that this is no idle threat.

The “Bali Nine”

On 29 April 2015 two members of the “Bali Nine”, a group of convicted heroin smugglers, were executed by firing squad on the Nusakambangan prison island in addition to six other men with drug related offenses. The “Bali Nine” refers to a group of Australian nationals that attempted to smuggle a large supply of heroin valued in the millions of dollars from Indonesia to Australia. One woman’s life was spared in a last-minute reprieve in the early morning of the execution. After persistent and relentless efforts on the part of the legal representatives of the prisoners and governments, unsurprisingly and especially Australia, the President of Indonesia Joko Widodo chose to reject all pleas for clemency for the drug smugglers.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Photo credit: Muhammad Fadli
Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Photo credit: Muhammad Fadli

Both of the smugglers executed on 29 April were Australian nationals. In a statement obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2014 President Joko was quoted saying “there are 64 [people] sentenced to death by the courts and as I’ve said about clemency request for drugs cases, I will never give clemency”. [1] President Joko, who assumed office in 2014, ran his campaign on a strict no tolerance policy on drugs. He is following through on his promise to tackle the problem head on, but at what price?

In the last several months President Joko has lost much political support for several reasons and a major one concerns capital punishment. His unwillingness to exercise mercy upon convicted criminals is well received amongst his constituents but he has experienced much heat from his foreign counterparts. In response to the first several rounds of a series of executions in early 2015, Brazil, the Netherlands and Australia withdrew their Ambassadors from Indonesia giving President Joko a massive political blow.

The government as well as the general public in Indonesia have seemingly been consistent and transparent in their support of the death penalty. Capital punishment has been implemented in the legal system in Indonesia since its inception. Indonesia’s drug laws are not ambiguous or unclear. If one is caught with drugs for any reason there will be severe consequences. According to Article 59 of Law No. 5 of 1997 on psychotropic drugs, “the use, production, possession or trafficking of psychotropic drugs ‘as an organized crime’ is punishable by death”. [2]  Call it harsh, call it unfair but this is the law of the land. In the case of the “Bali Nine”, the group of smugglers gambled with their lives, lost and paid the ultimate price.

The people who have perished due to drug abuse and the pain that many current and former addicts undergo every day are a driving force in this strict drug policy. President Joko Widodo attributes his firm stance on this issue to his belief that drug traffickers are eliminating a generation, particularly the youth, and therefore the drug traffickers need to be taken out of the equation. It would seem that he is far more focused on the traffickers and holding them responsible for the amount of death and despair that comes as a result of drug use and less on personal responsibility on the part of the users.


A Weak Deterrence

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2014 World Drug Report estimates at least 16 million people worldwide have drug dependence. [3] The report also puts recreational users at the hundreds of millions. Despite the threat of death for drug smugglers in Indonesia, many people are willing to take the risk of dealing, selling, using and cashing in on the multibillion dollar industry of drug trafficking. From a global perspective, and with reference to the countries with active capital punishment laws such as China and Iran, the death penalty has not been proven to be an effective deterrent from crime – drug related crimes included. There is no way to estimate how many drug traffickers there are in the world; however, it is safe to say that they are vastly outnumbered by the millions of people who are either drug abusers, recreational users or one-time customers.

Despite Indonesia’s harsh penalty on drug crimes, the country is still having an enormous issue with heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine pills being imported and exported. The death penalty is not deterring the dealers from dealing and the users from using. Executing the smugglers will not eradicate the issue of the black market drug trade. It simply isn’t a rational or logical strategy. It will also not solve the problem of drug addiction, narcotics smuggling nor will it compensate for the obvious and clear lack of drug rehabilitation and treatment programs. The Indonesian government’s drug laws and harsh punishments fail to consider the underlying reasons as to why people get involved in the drug trade or become users of illicit drugs. Ignoring those reasons robs the government of the opportunity to target the illicit drug activity in a less threatening and violent way. Ignoring those reasons means ignoring potential prevention programs that would deter people from getting involved with drugs in any fashion. There is a more humane way to punish traffickers than the threat of three bullets to the chest or one to the head if the others fail.


Mercy Elsewhere

Two of the Bali Nince drug smugglers awaiting their sentences. Photo credit: Reprieve Australia.
Two of the “Bali Nine” drug smugglers awaiting their sentences. Photo credit: Reprieve Australia.

Indonesia relentlessly imposes the death penalty for drug related crimes on foreigners within its jurisdiction. The hypocrisy of their no-tolerance attitude towards offenses related to illicit contraband is apparent when considering that Indonesia exerts a tremendous amount of effort into saving their nationals abroad from similar situations. This double standard weakens their relationship with other countries and is detrimental to how Indonesia is perceived on the world stage.

This political behavior and habit on the part of the government is counterproductive. Indonesia has been very vocal in expressing their condemnation of Indonesians being executed abroad.  Satinah Binti Jumadi Ahmad, an Indonesian national, has been on death row in Saudi Arabia since 2010 for murdering the wife of her employer. The Indonesian government has been working hard to stop her execution and has gone so far as to submit an appeal to the then King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. [4]

How can the Indonesian government plead for mercy on behalf of their own people abroad when the same courtesy is not given when the roles are reversed? What will it take for anti-death penalty and human rights activists to convince the Indonesian policy makers that the excessive use of capital punishment is downright detrimental and destructive to not only the country’s population but also to its foreign relations?

There are dozens of individuals that remain on Indonesia’s death row. Considering that President Joko Widodo is the sole provider of clemency, a great deal of work and progression will need to be done in order to convince this strong-willed leader to abandon his narrow view of the issue and spare the lives of many.



1. Dunlevy, Gabrielle. “Indonesian President Joko Widodo Hardens Line on Drug Offenders on Death Row.” The Sydney Morning Herald. 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 3 July 2015. <http://www.smh.com.au/world/indonesian-president-joko-widodo-hardens-line-on-drug-offenders-on-death-row-20141218-12a8d7.html&gt;.

2. “Indonesia.” Death Penalty Worldwide. World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 7 July 2015. <http://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/country-search-post.cfm?country=Indonesia&gt;.

3. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2014). World Drug Report 2014. Vienna. Available from http://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr2014/World_Drug_Report_2014_web.pdf.

4. Phelim Kine, “Dispatches: Indonesia’s Death Penalty Double Standard.” 15 Jan. 2015. <https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/15/dispatches-indonesias-death-penalty-double-standard&gt;. Web. 10 July 2015


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