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Indonesia’s unofficial ‘pause’ on the death penalty has come too late for Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Moratorium or not, Indonesia could be abandoning the death penalty

A number of news outlets reported last week that Indonesia had placed a moratorium on the death penalty. Indonesian’s co-ordinating security minister, Luhut Panjaitan, was said to announce this by saying:

We haven’t thought about executing a death penalty with the economic conditions like this.

However, Panjaitan later denied this meant an end to capital punishment in Indonesia:

No, I told them we will not carry out executions for the time being because we are now focusing on the economy.

What is a moratorium?

A moratorium means the suspension of executions. It may be official and announced, or simply practised.

Therefore, on the face of it, Indonesia has entered a moratorium of an indeterminate period. The dozens on death row in Indonesia may eventually see their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

The last – unofficial – moratorium in Indonesia ran from 2008 to 2013 under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). SBY is reported to have deeply disliked capital punishment. But his replacement, Joko Widodo, embraced executions as part of a hardline stance against drug offending.

Capital punishment globally

One hundred and forty countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Fifty-eight retain the death penalty.

Many jurisdictions have abandoned capital punishment in recent years. A moratorium is a well-established step along the path to full abolition.

However, capital punishment remains a global human rights concern. In 2014, at least 22 countries carried out 607 or more executions. At least 2,466 people were sentenced to death around the world.

The five countries responsible for the most executions, according to confirmed data, were Iran (289), Saudi Arabia (90), Iraq (61), the US (35) and Sudan (23). These statistics do not include the suspected thousands of executions in China, which does not report statistics.

Are the reasons for a moratorium important?

There are many persuasive arguments against capital punishment. The death penalty violates the right to life, inflicts torture and is especially wrong where it is carried out in discriminatory ways or for crimes that are not really serious.

Further, the death penalty risks the lives of innocent people wrongly convicted. It has no proven special deterrent value.

Where a country introduces a moratorium or abolishes the death penalty, it might seem reasonable to assume that public and political opinion has identified the practice as wrong. However, capital punishment has often been abandoned for reasons that have little or nothing to do with the ethics of the practice.

Thirty-one American states retain capital punishment in law but only about eight states currently practise it. The number of executions has dropped significantly in recent years. Oklahoma introduced a moratorium in 2014, following the botched and torturous execution of Clayton Lockett.

Similar incidents have led doctors to refuse to participate in executions, and pharmaceutical companies to refuse supply of the most-tested lethal injection drugs.

In the US, as in Indonesia, moratoriums have come in response to the high costs of death-penalty prosecutions and executions.

A win for death penalty opponents?

This is not Indonesia’s first moratorium on capital punishment. And the practice could easily be reinstated. This may depend on whether the current moratorium is purely motivated by the economy, or whether it is also an indirect response to international condemnation of the most recent executions.

The two factors are possibly related. Foreign investors are more cautious about Indonesia due to the controversy caused by its recent executions of foreign nationals.

Whether Indonesia’s new moratorium is genuine or temporary, this is an advocacy moment for Australia to seize.

Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs responded to the executions of Australian drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia in April with a call for abolitionist lobbying across Asia and the Pacific. Triggs noted that the death penalty has been abandoned in New Zealand, Cambodia, Timor Leste, the Philippines, Bhutan and Nepal. De facto moratoriums are operating in Fiji, Thailand and Laos.

Philip Ruddock is chairing a federal parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty. Asked whether Indonesia’s economic justification for the moratorium might be a strategy to mask its desire to respond to international pressure, he said:

My view is that any change is desirable … There are a very large number of Indonesians on death row in other countries that [the Indonesians] work hard to have released, so they have an interest in seeing a more just outcome in relation to dealing with these issues around the world.

During his recent visit to Indonesia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull refrained from raising capital punishment. But in line with the parliamentary inquiry’s objectives, Turnbull could capitalise on the moratorium by renewing dialogue with Indonesia on the issue.

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