Fears for Drug Users and Many Others After Indonesia’s Presidential Election

    Indonesia appears to have chosen an authoritarian-minded former general with a harrowing human rights record as its next president. Preliminary results of the February 14 election gave Prabowo Subianto a commanding lead over his rivals, with an outright majority of votes. Counting continues, but if official results confirm this in March, he will take office on October 20 as the eighth president of the word’s fourth most-populous country.

    Prabowo quickly declared victory. The other two candidates have not conceded, but have asked the Indonesia’s legislature to investigate electoral irregularities or potential fraud.

    Prabowo is the son-in-law of former President Suharto, whose dictatorial rule from 1968-1998 was characterized by systemic human rights abuses. As a senior military commander under Suharto, Prabowo was implicated in a number of atrocities. He has also made comments suggesting he would like to rule Indonesia as a dictator. His rise to power could have devastating consequences for the diverse country’s most marginalized people—including people who use drugs, even given a brutal current drug war.

    Prabowo took part in the East Timor genocide when commanding Indonesian forces.

    Prabowo entered the picture during the most notorious events of recent Indonesian history. From 1975 to 1999, Suharto’s regime invaded and occupied the island of East Timor, perpetrating torture, extrajudicial killings, massacres and sexual crimes in what is widely considered genocide.

    Prabowo took part in this genocide when commanding Indonesian forces. According to journalist Allan Nairn in the Intercept, who interviewed Prabowo, the future president participated in a 1983 massacre in Kraras, and personally tortured people. Nairn, himself a survivor of another massacre in East Timor, also relates how in 1998, Prabowo tried to suppress protests in the last days of Suharto’s rule, by abducting and “disappearing” 13 democratic activists, while also encouraging killings and other crimes against ethnic Chinese Indonesians.

    In the post-Suharto era, with national reforms aimed at strengthening democratic norms and freedom of speech, Prabowo ran for president in 2014, but lost to current President Jokowi. He backed a failed coup attempt in 2017, before running again for president in 2019—and refusing to accept his defeat, which led to deadly riots in Jakarta.

    But it was Jokowi’s blessing that ultimately enabled Prabowo to make it this far. The president appointed him defense minister in 2019, and cut a deal to have his son Gibran campaign as Prabowo’s running mate in the 2024 election. Nairn writes that the overtures were a doomed attempt to appease Prabowo and his military allies.

    Prabowo was banned from entering the United State from 2000-2020, until the Trump administration allowed him to visit. With the election count continuing, the Biden administration released a statement simply stating that it will “respect the voice and vote” of Indonesians.


    Indonesia’s Drug War

    Prabowo looks set to inherit a government that already wages a devastating drug war. Soon after his inauguration in 2015, President Jokowi declared a state of emergency on drugs, awarded an extra $100 million to Indonesia’s drug enforcement agency to conduct arrests and force people into “treatment,” and ordered that 14 people be put to death for drug convictions.

    Human rights groups meanwhile documented further abuses like prison overcrowding, forced drug testing, and health providers violating drug users’ privacy by disclosing information to cops.

    Experts say that although it’s hard to be certain Prabowo will further escalate the drug war, the signs are deeply worrying.

    Jokowi’s predecessor, President Yudhoyono, had overseen an unofficial ban on executions.

    Violence against people suspected of using drugs increased dramatically throughout Jokowi’s first term—including 10 reported extrajudicial killings in 2015, which escalated to 79 killings in 2017. Jokowi publicly ordered police to shoot drug traffickers who resist arrest. His head of the National Narcotics Agency, referring to on-the-spot shootings of suspects, simply asked, “Why not?”

    A 2020 report in the Brazilian newspaper Folha do São Paolo broke down the country’s draconian drug laws, and how they target the most marginalized people. Simple possession of drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine or methamphetamine could result in a 4-12 year prison sentence, forced treatment or large fines. Possession of larger amounts can result in life imprisonment, and selling drugs in a death sentence. Even parents whose children use drugs are required by law to report them, or face criminal penalties.

    Prosecutions for drug trafficking have increased throughout Jokowi’s tenure, despite data showing that drug use is decreasing. According to a 2022 Harm Reduction International report, courts handed down increasing numbers of death sentences in each of the previous five years. HRI counted 266 people on death row for drug convictions that year, about two thirds of the total. Human Rights Watch counted 18 people executed by Jokowi’s administration for drug trafficking from 2015-2016, but there have been no such executions since.

    In this context, experts say that although it’s hard to be certain Prabowo will further escalate the drug war, the signs are deeply worrying.

    “It will not be a surprise if he will continue Jokowi’s similarly punitive approach on drugs, if not tougher or worse.”

    “During the election processes and in general in his capacity as one of the candidates, we have not heard Prabowo making a statement on drugs,” Ajeng Larasati, human rights lead at Harm Reduction International, told Filter. “However, on his vision and missions, he included the following mission: ‘to strengthen the eradication of corruption, drugs, gambling, and trafficking.’ Before he was appointed as minister of defense, he made a statement on the ‘danger’ of drugs towards the young generation of Indonesia and the need to be tough on drugs.”

    As well as Prabowo’s long history of human rights abuses, Larasati referenced his embrace of nationalist rhetoric. Nationalism is often a pretext for more militaristic drug policies, as political leaders blame immigrants, foreign traffickers or terrorist groups for drugs entering their countries.

    “So, it is likely for [Prabowo] to pursue a ‘shortcut’ policy in addressing the drug policies to be seen as being nationalist,” Larasati said. “And by ‘shortcut’, I mean the use of the death penalty, or even extrajudicial killings. The fact that he is partnering with Jokowi’s son, and that Jokowi endorsed his candidacy, it will not be a surprise if he will continue Jokowi’s similarly punitive approach on drugs, if not tougher or worse.”

    A harm reduction advocate working in Indonesia echoed this view.

    “We are pessimistic that Prabowo will pursue a human rights-based drug policy,” Albert Wirya, research and program coordinator at Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Masyarakat, told Filter. His organization provides free legal aid services for marginalized communities in Jakarta.

    “Many statements made by Prabowo are ignorant of the issues of human rights today,” Wirya continued. “Even on the issues that are more popular, such as freedom of speech, he undermined the challenges faced by activists today. Furthermore, his most significant platform is continuing Jokowi’s legacy, which includes his drug policy.”

    “The ‘war on drug’ narratives which are echoed by politicians, government officials, academics, journalists and others is the main factor.”

    Wirya is concerned about steps taken by President Jokowi to suppress dissent and criminalize activists. CNN Indonesia published a list of political activists who have criticized the government and faced legal sanction, and the New Indian Express reported that human rights activists, journalists and citizens have been targeted by government officials for defamation.

    “In my opinion, the ‘war on drug’ narratives which are echoed by politicians, government officials, academics, journalists, public figures and others is the main factor why Indonesian drug policies are largely punitive,” Wirya said. “Some situations have been improved with the proliferation of civil society organizations and also the arrival of harm reduction services in the country, but the narrative is still dominant.”

    Harm Reduction International reported in 2022 that Indonesia had over 200 syringe service programs, provides methadone for opioid use disorder, and allows some access to safer smoking supplies. Such resources, which don’t include safe consumption sites or community distribution of naloxone, don’t adequately reach a population of 279 million, however. Among Indonesians who inject drugs, an estimated 39 percent are living with HIV, and 89 percent with hepatitis C.

    Nonetheless, the civil movements that gave rise to this infrastructure leave Wirya with some hope, despite the threats posed by Prabowo.

    “There will be challenges in the future for these [civil society organizations], including us, to continue to fight this punitive narrative,” he said. “However, I believe that the consistent work of civil society has created many investments in terms of gaining more allies, including those in the government.”

    Wirya said that many people in Indonesia hope that Prabowo might not support the death penalty as president. Back in 2014, Prabowo involved himself in a high-profile Malaysian case where an Indonesian migrant, Wilfrida Soik, was acquitted on murder charges and spared the death penalty. The Jakarta Post reported that Prabowo attended Wilfrida’s hearings and hired her defense lawyer; he praised the court decision.

    But Larasati is hesitant about drawing any conclusion: “He understands the geopolitical situation, and is aware that the use of the death penalty or extrajudicial killings might trigger critics from international actors … But I am afraid we cannot use this (yet) as signals of his disapproval of the death penalty.”

    “The government could more than halve the prison population by removing the overlap in the definition of people who use drugs and people involved in trafficking.”

    Prabowo’s first full year as president would also coincide with the introduction of a new criminal code, agreed by lawmakers in 2022 and due to take effect in 2025. Human Rights Watch criticized provisions that endanger the rights of women and LGBTQ people, while weakening freedom of speech and protest rights.

    Harm Reduction International—while acknowledging the code is problematic—welcomed in its 2022 report the fact that it sets a “probation period” on executions. In certain circumstances, the government would postpone an execution for at least 10 years, then consider commuting the sentence.

    In 2023, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) published an article by Adery Ardhan Saputro, deputy director of the Indonesia Judicial Research Society, looking specifically at implications for drug charges. Under the previous code, drug laws made no distinction between people who use and sell drugs—meaning that those caught with even small quantities can be treated as traffickers and face harsh sentences. The new criminal code does nothing to address that, “therefore failing to address a crucial innate problem in Indonesia’s existing drug laws,” Saputro wrote.

    “The Indonesian government could more than halve the prison population by removing the overlap in the definition of people who use drugs and people who are involved in the trafficking of drugs,” he continued. “This could be done by decriminalizing the personal consumption of drugs, which could save lives and bring an end to the needless criminalization of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.”



    Photograph of Prabowo in 2023 by US Navy Petty Officer Alexander Kubitz/US Secretary of Defense via WikiMedia Commons/Public Domain

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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