Poverty drives deadly game

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2007, 12:00am

The risk is severe - death by hanging - and yet there is no shortage of Indonesians, mostly poverty-stricken Acehnese, willing to carry cannabis across the Strait of Malacca into Malaysia where the cargo finds a ready market.

The profits are huge, human rights lawyers say. In Aceh, 1kg of cannabis costs M$6 (HK$13), but once across the water it fetches M$1,600. Mohamad Nizam, 32, from Lhokseumawe, Aceh, was charged with trafficking 16kg of cannabis last month and faces the mandatory death sentence if found guilty.

'He is married with two children and, like others, was driven by poverty to take risks,' said Mohammad's court-appointed lawyer, Ramu Annamalai Kandasamy. 'It is a heavy price to pay if found guilty.'

Mohammed and others similarly accused have come under the spotlight since Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Razak, last month called for a massive campaign to eradicate the source of cannabis and other drugs.

He estimated that 1 million Malaysians were drug addicts.

Under the law, trafficking more than 200 grams of cannabis is punishable by death.

About 280 Indonesians are in Malaysian jails awaiting trial or the outcome of appeals for trafficking, Indonesian officials say.

'We want to help them with legal representation, but the cost is high,' an Indonesian embassy spokesman said.

'We can only give legal help, we cannot interfere in their judicial system because both countries impose the death penalty on drug offences.'

Malaysian law provides court-appointed lawyers for people charged with offences that carry the death penalty. Appeal to the highest court is also automatic and, after exhausting all appeals, those convicted can write to the king for clemency.

Mr Ramu, who has studied the issue, said cannabis was grown widely in Aceh and its profits were previously used to finance the separatist war which ended in 2005.

'Poverty has worsened since the 2004 tsunami and is now driving the trade,' he said. 'The huge profit margin is a magnet. They all hope to strike it big and return with the profits to start a farm, buy a taxi or start a small business. But some end up in death row.'

Yap Swee Seng, executive director of Suaram, a human rights group, said the accused were held in solitary confinement for up to 15 years and their families were kept in the dark.

'Death sentences are carried out discreetly and without any formal announcement,' he said, adding the secrecy made it difficult to monitor the situation.

Dead men waiting

Number of Indonesians facing execution after the outcome of their drug-trafficking cases in Malaysia