Indonesia weighs controversial new drug crime penalties

As the country considers new punishments in its war on drugs, critics say it should instead focus on helping addicts.

Jakarta, Indonesia – A prison guarded by crocodiles, tigers and piranhas.

Force-feeding drug dealers their own narcotics until they die.

Controversial as they may be, these are just some of the latest weapons Indonesia is considering in its war on drugs.

With the country home to 4.5 million addicts, according to government estimates, Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency is suggesting these proposals to tackle the drug menace.

The government says 33 people die from overdoses each day, and it considers the narcotics problem a national emergency.

“We need to be serious because drugs are the enemy,” says agency spokesman Slamet Pribadi.

Indonesia already has tough narcotics laws, including death by firing squad for large-scale traffickers. But the government believes more needs to be done to deter local drug use.

Across Indonesia, police have stepped up raids on suspected drug dens. A recent raid in Jakarta resulted in four deaths – a police officer, an informer who provided intelligence, and two gang members.

“We have to fight this war on drugs everywhere,” says Hendro Pandowo, the local police chief who oversaw the raid. “They have to be cleaned off the streets of Jakarta and eradicated throughout Indonesia.”

Every week, law enforcement agencies gather the media and parade the low-level drug users, dealers and the narcotics they have snared.

Indonesia's drug war has forced narcotic use underground, but many meth addicts still abuse drugs in crack dens [Tim Deagle/AL Jazeera]Indonesia’s drug war has forced narcotic use underground, but many meth addicts still abuse drugs in crack dens [Tim Deagle/AL Jazeera]

Facing an HIV outbreak

But critics say the war on drugs is only creating a climate of fear with potentially fatal consequences.

Suhendro Sugiharto, an outreach worker with the Indonesian Drug Users Network, the country’s biggest group of advocacy organisations, says the number of HIV infections is rising, a development he attributes to more people sharing needles.

Users fear that if police catch them carrying a syringe, they could be sent to prison, he says.

“We’ll be facing the next HIV outbreak if this doesn’t change,” says Sugiharto, whose groups provide clean needles.

He says drug programmes used to be successful in curbing overdose rates, HIV and hepatitis C because social workers knew where to find addicts.

But now, because of the crackdown, users have moved to more hidden locations.

“It’s creating difficulty for the outreach worker to give away clean needles and also to collect used needles … and it has put us in danger of an HIV epidemic,” he says.

This shooting gallery is affectionately known as 'heroin heaven' and is a popular place for shooting up [Drew Ambrose/Al Jazeera]This shooting gallery is affectionately known as ‘heroin heaven’ and is a popular place for shooting up [Drew Ambrose/Al Jazeera]

Punishing drug addicts

Others argue that Indonesia’s drug laws unfairly punish addicts because they do not distinguish between users and traffickers.

“Our laws criminalise the victim,” says Rudhy Wedhasmara, a defence lawyer who represents addicts pro bono.

“If someone is buying a drug for their own use, it’s described in laws as being involved in an illicit trade. Our laws also say if you are caught with a gramme of a drug, they should be sent to rehab, but instead they are sent to jail.”

Wedhasmara says prison is the worst place possible for addicts.

“Prison is no solution as they remain addicted,” he explains.

Up to 70 percent of Indonesia’s total prison population are low-level drug offenders, according to prison officials.

Rudhy Wedhasmara is a reformed drug user who tries to help addicts as a pro bono lawyer [Tim Deagle/Al Jazeera]Rudhy Wedhasmara is a reformed drug user who tries to help addicts as a pro bono lawyer [Tim Deagle/Al Jazeera]

Inside the Indonesian prison using Scientology

Al Jazeera was granted rare access to Cipinang, the country’s biggest jail, which has a special section to accommodate the growing number of drug criminals.

Chief Warden Andika Prasetya admits that drug offenders struggle to get support in his overcrowded prison.

“We’re only capable of holding 1,084 prisoners. But today, we have 2,933 inmates. It causes many problems. There’s not enough clean water for them. There’s little room for resting or rehab activities.”

About 1,000 prisoners are attending rehab classes in the jail’s treatment programme, which is based on the teachings of L Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology.

The chief warden is convinced the programme works.

“When we use this method, we notice changes in their behaviour,” he says. “They’re happy, more obedient and disciplined. They look cleaner and tidier compared to others who haven’t done the programme.”

Drug dealers taken away by the authorities [Dessi Ariyanti/Al Jzeera]Drug dealers taken away by the authorities [Dessi Ariyanti/Al Jzeera]

But the prison walls can prove no barrier to accessing drugs.

In 2013, a methamphetamine lab was discovered inside the jail, and three guards were found to be involved in the scandal.

“This case is an indicator for us to be more aware of the involvement of prison staff in trafficking,” Prasetya says.

But the warden concedes that guards are still involved in smuggling narcotics into the prison.

“I don’t deny bribes and corruption occurs in the jail. Our staff are human beings; they can get influenced by criminals. I am sure by boosting the morality of the guards, it will improve. Now, we conduct more training about the laws. We do more body checks, and we inspect personal belongings,” says Prasetya. 

A prisoner performs inside Indonesia's biggest prison, Cipinang Penitentiary [Drew Ambrose/Al Jazeera]A prisoner performs inside Indonesia’s biggest prison, Cipinang Penitentiary [Drew Ambrose/Al Jazeera]

Risking it all for an addiction

For Bambang, a 32-year-old addict who studied computer engineering at university, taking drugs in prison brought more risks than simply getting caught.

While serving time in 2009, he says he and many of his cellmates contracted HIV after sharing needles. Some have since died from the disease.

“I knew about the dangers of HIV, but the urge to use was overpowering,” says Bambang, who did not want his full name published.

Bambang has been taking a cocktail of drugs, from marijuana to heroin, since he was 13.

To avoid detection, he and his friends often head to back-alley dens at night to use methamphetamines.

Bambang believes the government needs to provide more information about the dangers of drugs. He says tough penalties will not stop people from taking narcotics.

“The punishment won’t deter them because they have an addiction,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how harsh the punishments are.”

Boncos slum is one of the poorest parts of downtown Jakarta. Heroin is widely used here despite the drug crackdown [Drew Ambrose/Al Jazeera] Boncos slum is one of the poorest parts of downtown Jakarta. Heroin is widely used here despite the drug crackdown [Drew Ambrose/Al Jazeera]

From the 101 East documentary, Indonesia’s Drug War. Watch the full film here.

Follow Drew Ambrose on Twitter: @drewambrose Follow Liz Gooch on Twitter: @liz_gooch

Source: Al Jazeera


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