Indonesia has sentenced several prisoners to death over Zoom and other video apps during the coronavirus pandemic in what critics say is an “inhumane” insult to those facing the firing squad.
The Southeast Asian nation turned to virtual court hearings as COVID-19 restrictions shut down most in-person trials, including murder and drug trafficking cases, which can carry the death penalty.
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Since early last year, almost 100 inmates have been condemned to die in Indonesia by judges they could only see on a television monitor, according to Amnesty International.
The Muslim-majority nation has some of the world’s toughest drug laws and both Indonesian and foreign traffickers have been executed, including the masterminds of Australia’s Bali Nine heroin gang.
This month, 13 members of a trafficking ring, including three Iranians and a Pakistani, learned via video that they would be shot for smuggling 400kg (880 pounds) of methamphetamine into Indonesia.
On Wednesday, a Jakarta court sentenced six fighters to death using a video app over their role in a 2018 prison riot in which five members of Indonesia’s counterterror squad were killed.
“Virtual hearings degrade the rights of defendants facing death sentences – it’s about someone’s life and death,” said Amnesty International Indonesia director, Usman Hamid.
“The death penalty has always been a cruel punishment. But this online trend adds to the injustice and inhumanity.”
Indonesia has pressed on with the virtual hearings even as the number of executions and death sentences dropped globally last year, with COVID-19 disrupting many criminal proceedings, Amnesty said in its annual capital punishment report this week.
Virtual hearings leave defendants unable to fully participate in cases that are sometimes interrupted in countries with poor internet connections, including Indonesia, critics say.
“Virtual platforms … can expose the defendant to significant violations of their fair trial rights and impinge on the quality of the defence,” NGO Harm Reduction International said in a recent report on the death penalty for drug offences.
Lawyers have complained about being unable to consult with clients due to virus restrictions. And families of the accused have sometimes been barred from accessing hearings that would normally be open to the public.
“These virtual hearings present a clear disadvantage for defendants,” said Indonesian lawyer Dedi Setiadi.
Setiadi, who defended several men sentenced to death in the methamphetamine case this month, said he would appeal their case on the grounds that virtual hearings were unfair.
Relatives of the defendants were not given full access, the lawyer said.
Death penalty sentences are often commuted to long jail terms in Indonesia and an in-person trial might have brought about a less severe verdict, according to Setiadi, who described his clients as low-level players in the smuggling ring.
“The verdict could have been different if the judges had talked directly with the defendants and seen their expressions,” he said. “A Zoom hearing is less personal.”
Indonesia’s Supreme Court, which ordered online hearings during the pandemic, did not reply to requests for comment.
But the country’s judicial commission told AFP news agency that it has asked the top court to consider returning to in-person trials for serious offences, including cases with capital punishment.
There are nearly 500 people, including many foreigners, awaiting execution in Indonesia, where condemned prisoners are marched to a jungle clearing, tied to a stake and shot.