Two encouraging developments regarding the death penalty have come to light in Indonesia in the past week.

First, it has emerged that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono granted clemency to four people on death row for narcotics crimes and reduced their sentences to life imprisonment.

These decisions show a willingness to grant clemency at odds with previous practice and rhetoric. Before these decisions were revealed, there had been only one other known case of clemency for a capital offence in the past 30 years and that was in exceptional circumstances.

As criticism of the clemency decisions mounted, Minister for Law and Human Rights Amir Syamsuddin disclosed that of 128 decisions on clemency for narcotics crimes (not all of which were death penalty cases) President Yudhoyono has granted clemency 19 times. This includes the four death penalty cases, which involve three Indonesians and one foreigner, as well as clemency for 10 juveniles.

The second encouraging change is increasing acknowledgement by Indonesian cabinet ministers of a link between overseas advocacy for Indonesians facing the death penalty and domestic decisions. 

As I outlined in a Lowy Institute analysis A Key Domino? Indonesia's Death Penalty Politics, Indonesia has energetically advocated for leniency for more than 200 Indonesians facing the death penalty abroad, following the public outcry and intense criticism of the government triggered by the execution of an Indonesian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia in June 2011.

Initiallly, the government resisted a connection between its advocacy for Indonesian prisoners abroad and its domestic death penalty policy in its public statements. The unwillingness to link the foreign and domestic spheres began to change in the face of a public backlash following the five-year reduction in the prison sentence being served by Australian drug convict Schapelle Corby. Responding to this criticism, Syamsuddin cited government advocacy for Indonesians facing heavy sentences abroad, including the death penalty, and expressed the hope that Indonesia would also obtain positive outcomes in its diplomatic efforts for Indonesian citizens imprisoned in Australia.

This time Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has joined Syamsuddin in drawing links between the two cases. Natalegawa's comments, made in an inter-ministerial press conference to explain the clemency decisions to the public, were particularly direct. As reported on Republika Online, he said the government had advocated for Indonesians facing the death penalty overseas, regardless of their crime, including the 45% of prisoners facing narcotics cases. Moreover, 42 of the 100 Indonesians he cited as escaping the death penalty had faced narcotics charges in countries as firm as Indonesia in their fight against drugs. 'So, if we discuss narcotics crimes and the granting of clemency domestically,' Republika Online reported the minister saying, 'we also must remember that overseas 45% of Indonesians are facing the death penalty [for narcotics crimes].'

 (Online news portal kompas.com also reported Natalegawa saying, 'Based on facts, there has been a sharp increase in the [number of] international governments adopting a policy of abolishing the death penalty because it is not consistent with human rights. Indonesia itself is already headed in that direction.' His comments led the site to run the headline: Indonesia Soon to Abolish the Death Penalty. The Foreign Ministry was quick to announce its objection to this interpretation. Another minister present at the press conference also emphasised that the death penalty remained in force and Indonesia would not just follow world trends.]

What do these developments mean for the death penalty in Indonesia and the more than 100 people still on death row there? It is too early to conclude that the government will decide to abolish the death penalty or grant clemency to the remaining prisoners on Indonesia's death row. 

Many public figures have criticised the clemency decisions, including influential figures like members of the central leadership board of Indonesia's largest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama. The Supreme Court has also attracted criticism recently because its judges have commuted death sentences in specific narcotics cases to prison terms. 

For its part, the government has not made a serious effort to tackle the key arguments put forward by critics of the clemency decisions. Additionally, comments by minister Syamsuddin that the four death row inmates to receive clemency were drug couriers rather than kingpins (gembong) could also mean the government is not yet ready to extend its blanket approach to Indonesians abroad to its domestic death row (he may also simply have been objecting to the press's ubiquitous use of the word 'kingpin').

Nevertheless, the events of the past week have been very encouraging. In my March 2012 Lowy Institute Analysis Paper I characterised Indonesia as being at a crossroads regarding the death penalty, with competing forces advocating greater use of capital punishment and its abolition and cited the imperative to protect citizens abroad as a possible new pragmatic factor encouraging abolition.

With more signs that Indonesia's overseas advocacy is beginning to affect the domestic death penalty debate, I am as optimistic as I have been in years that Indonesia will depart from this crossroads by striding down the abolitionist path.

Photo by Flicr user :Dar.