Indonesia has argued need for tough drug trafficking deterrent, but some say harsh penalties due to domestic politics
A 73-year-old Japanese man, who says he was deceived into carrying drugs in someone else's bag on a flight into Indonesia, was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday for smuggling methamphetamine into the country. The case highlights the country's strict anti-drug laws, which drew international outcry when they resulted in the executions of nine convicts last month.
Masaru Kawada was arrested in November at Minangkabau Airport in West Sumatra's capital, Padang, after customs officials found 5.18 pounds of crystal methamphetamine in his luggage. Chief state prosecutor Budi Prihalda said they had recommended a light sentence of 16 years because of the defendant's age.
But the 3-judge panel that convicted Kawada at the District Court in Pariaman said his deed had weakened the government's struggle against drugs, and sentenced him to life in prison.
"We found no reason to lighten his sentence," said presiding judge Jon Effreddi.
A lawyer for Kawada - who argued that he was tricked by someone who asked him to carry a bag and that he did not know he was carrying drugs - said they would appeal.
According to court documents, a man identified as Edward Mark met Kawada in Japan last November and asked him to travel to Macau, with Mark paying for Kawada's tickets and accommodations and giving him $500 in travel expenses. While in Macau, Kawada met a Chinese woman who asked him to carry a bag to a friend in Padang.
Kawada, who flew to Padang from Macau via Kuala Lumpur, said he had checked the bag and did not find anything suspicious. He said he only realized he was carrying methamphetamine upon arrival, when customs officials arrested him and confiscated the drug.
The grandfather of 2 is believed to be one of the oldest drug smugglers to be sentenced in Indonesia, which has extremely strict drug laws and often executes smugglers.
The country has executed 14 drug convicts, including 12 foreigners, this year amid protests and an international outcry, but Indonesia insists that tough punishment is part of its efforts to confront a drug emergency. Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has said the country has 4.5 million people addicted to drugs.
But some activists have said such harsh penalties for drug offenses are related to domestic politics. Earlier this year Ricky Gunawan, director of the Jakarta-based LBH Masyarakat Community Legal Aid Institute, told Al Jazeera that there is widespread support for sentencing drug offenders to the death penalty.
"In Indonesia, drugs have always been seen as 'evil.' Narcotics ... are often labeled as haram," Gunawan said, using a term that means "forbidden" under Islam, the majority religion in Indonesia. "The government and law apparatus treat this issue as a way to gain popularity or support," he said.
Arrests, convictions and executions are "a way for the government to show that they are tough against crimes," Gunawan said.
More than 130 people are on death row in Indonesia, mostly for drug crimes. About 1/3 are foreigners.
"Since it is believed that the majority of drugs in Indonesia are imported, the government believes that by imposing harsh punishment on traffickers, they could reduce or halt the importation of drugs," Yohanes Sulaiman, lecturer in international relations and political science at Jakarta's Indonesian Defense University, told Deutsche Welle earlier this year.
Jokowi's determination to deal harshly with drug crimes has won him popular support at home, despite criticism by some rights groups and international leaders.
"We want to send a strong message to drug smugglers that Indonesia is firm and serious in tackling the drug problem, and one of the consequences is execution if the court sentences them to death," he told Al Jazeera in March.