Indonesia’s protest over the execution of one of its citizens this week by Saudi Arabia has raised questions about its consistency in relation to its own policy on the death penalty, writes COLIN BROWN.
Siti Zaenab was beheaded in Saudi Arabia on 14 April, having been sentenced to death for murdering the wife of her employer in 1999. Hers was perhaps the 60th execution in Saudi Arabia so far this year. This event has received minimal coverage in Australia, but it has been headline news in Indonesia; understandably, given that Siti Zaenab was an Indonesian citizen.
Sending Indonesians like Siti overseas to work has become a major industry in the past two decades, with Saudi Arabia being one of the major destination countries. The Indonesian government agency responsible for monitoring the sending of workers overseas (BNP2TK ) reported in 2011 that there were 137,643 Indonesians working in Saudi Arabia. Over 70 per cent were women, and of them 90 per cent were domestic workers. These numbers only reflected those who went to Saudi Arabia through official channels; many others are believed to have gone through less formal means.
Siti was by no means the first Indonesian migrant worker to be executed in Saudi Arabia. Indeed in 2011, in response to the execution of Ruyati binti Satubi, Indonesia imposed a moratorium on further departures of workers to Saudi Arabia, which remains in effect. Earlier this year Migrant Care, an Indonesian non-governmental organisation, reported that there were 17 Indonesians under sentence of death overseas, five of whom were in Saudi Arabia.
There have been many protests in Indonesia against this most recent execution. The Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, sent a protest note to the Saudi Embassy in Jakarta, and called the Saudi Ambassador in to the ministry to hear the government’s protest directly. The Deputy Speaker of the parliament, Agus Hermanto, said that the parliament had expressed its concern at the actions of the Saudi government. There have been demonstrations by Siti’s supporters outside the Saudi Embassy in Jakarta.
The common thread to most of these protests, at least the official ones, was the subject of their concern. It was not the death sentence per se; it was that the Saudi authorities had not informed the Indonesian government about the timing of the execution.
This position was made very clear, for instance, by Hikmahanto Juwana , a professor of International Law at the University of Indonesia. He argued that the Indonesian Foreign Ministry was correct in protesting the lack of prior notification, as this was a violation of international law. The government had in other respects done all that it was possible, and appropriate, to do.
Indeed, this point aside, Juwana saw much to admire in what the Saudis had done. Their actions, he said, ought to be an object lesson for the Indonesian Attorney General’s Department. The Department should be as resolute as the Saudi authorities in carrying out the death penalty, otherwise the public will question why those sentenced to death in Indonesia have not been executed. However, not all voices raised have been along these lines.
Some commentators have argued that the Jokowi government was insufficiently active in pressing for clemency for Siti. One observer who took this position, Chusnul Mar’iyah, suggested that Jokowi should have supplemented the country’s formal diplomatic efforts to save Siti with support from religious organisations, community leaders and intellectuals with connections to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in this matter he argued that Indonesia should have learned from Australia which had been so persistent in fighting to prevent its citizens being executed.
Call for strong protest
Others were more critical still of Jokowi, linking the Siti Zaenab case to that of Indonesia’s own sue of the death penalty. In a press release issued on 14 April, Migrant Care condemned the Saudi execution as a ‘most serious human rights violation’. It called on the Indonesian government to issue a strong protest to the Saudi government about the executions, and to declare the Saudi Ambassador in Jakarta persona non grata.
But the organisation went further than that. Acknowledging that there were many Indonesians currently under sentence of death overseas, it called on the Indonesian government to ‘halt the implementation of death sentences in Indonesia as the first step towards pressuring other countries to not apply death sentences to migrant workers’. The human rights organisation Kontras took a similar position, arguing that Indonesia’s efforts to save its citizens sentenced to death overseas was hampered by its own use of the death penalty.
What parallels may be drawn between the case of Siti Zaenab and those of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who, barring completely unforeseen developments, will be executed shortly?
The position of the Indonesian government in the case of Siti Zaenab has been consistent, from the current president, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), to his predecessors, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and Abdurrahman Wahid. All wrote formally to the Saudi king to request clemency for Siti. Other Indonesian government officials and diplomats had made approaches to their counterparts in Saudi Arabia with the same objective.
It has consistently requested the Australian government to respect Indonesia’s sovereign right to apply its law to everyone within its national territory.
But the substance of these approaches seems clearly to have been to ensure that Saudi law was followed and that Siti was supported in the exercise of all her legal rights, including the right to request clemency from the king. It was not to argue special consideration be given to her as an Indonesian, nor to argue that the death penalty was inherently wrong. Jusuf Kalla, the current vice-president, and the vice-president during SBY’s first administration, made this point very clearly. Three Indonesian presidents, he noted, had written to the Saudi government seeking clemency for Siti. The government was unsuccessful in those efforts, but ‘we respect the laws of other nations just as we ask other nations to respect Indonesian laws. That’s the point’.
The Indonesian government’s position with respect to the Chan and Sukumaran cases is consistent with this viewpoint. It has said that the legal processes must be followed; and if the outcome of those legal processes is that the death penalty stands, it will be implemented. It has consistently requested the Australian government to respect Indonesia’s sovereign right to apply its law to everyone within its national territory.
None of this is a justification for the use of the death penalty. Indeed, Jakarta has not sought to examine whether the Saudi use of the death penalty is effective or morally appropriate, though the fact that there are still Indonesian domestic workers being accused of murdering their employers suggests that it is at least not effective.
Jakarta takes the position that it does not have the right to query the rationale behind a foreign law. The case of Indonesian law is of course different: the government makes the law, and it justifies its actions to the Indonesian public, and the parliament. And all the available evidence is that Jokowi has widespread support for his use of the death penalty in the case of drug smugglers. But it follows logically that Indonesia does not accept that Australia has the right to query why Indonesia has the death penalty for certain crimes. That is seen as nobody’s business but Indonesia’s.
Whatever we think of the death penalty—and I for one reject it—in the case of Australians Chan and Sukumuran, Jokowi’s position is consistent with what he has done in respect of Indonesian Siti Zaenab. Whatever else he might be, in this case, at least, he is not being hypocritical.
Siti Zaenab: Indonesia protested her beheading by Saudi Arabia.