Islam blamed for death penalty

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2007, 12:00am

As the debate on the death penalty resurfaces in Indonesia, activists have singled out Islam as one of their main obstacles to convincing the government to abolish executions.

In the archipelago, which has the world's largest Muslim population, the debate has been bubbling under the surface for a long time and heated up again after a Court of Appeal ruling upheld the death penalty for serious crimes, such as drug trafficking.

The ruling was prompted by an appeal filed by five inmates, including three Australians, who challenged the legality of the death penalty, claiming it was against the constitution. The document says, 'Every human being has the right to life'.

The court's decision was lauded by most of the country's Islamic leaders, who said it was in line with sharia law.

Although it is a secular state, religious leaders' views hold a prominent place in Indonesia's social and political discourse.

Agung Yudhawiranata, of the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy, said because the Koran mentioned the death penalty as a fair punishment, Jakarta was wary of considering a ban. 'Here, most people believe the death penalty should be allowed because the Koran says so. It is risky for the government to take a position against it,' he said.

Usman Hamid, of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, Indonesia's leading anti-death penalty advocate, said religious leaders' opposition made his work more difficult.

'Some religious leaders support it, and that is a problem when you are trying to get a moratorium on executions,' he said. But he said there was no consensus among Islamic leaders on the issue.

Lily Munir, one of Indonesia's leading female activists and academics, called for a new look at the Koran. 'The basic Islamic text should be reinterpreted; it should be understood in a broader, modern meaning,' she said. 'Justice is a relative concept, it changes with time, and we need to ask what is justice today.'

She argued that justice was mentioned in the Koran, but 'even if it was justice at that time, it doesn't mean that it is justice now'.

But her call for modernisation is falling on deaf ears. Echoing his peers, Abdurrahman Navis, head of the fatwa department of the East Java Ulema Council, the country's top state-sanctioned religious institution, said 'the death penalty is a necessary tool, today as before'.

'If a life is taken, another one must be taken in retribution. That is what sharia teaches us,' he said. 'Selling drugs is a slow way of killing people, so the death penalty can be a fair punishment for this.'

The death penalty was introduced during Dutch colonial rule and executions are carried out by firing squad. It is used as a punishment for murder, terrorism, military insubordination and drug trafficking.

Jakarta also believes it is 'an indispensable tool in fighting terrorism'.

More than 60 people are on death row in Indonesia, including three responsible for the Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 11 Hong Kong residents, in October 2002. There are also many foreigners, including five Chinese nationals, sentenced for drug offences.