This blog is written by our International Working Group Member Yohan Misero, from Indonesia.

Indonesia is a tough jurisdiction for achieving drug policy reform. Massive corruption, lack of evidence in policy making, and a struggling democracy are all prevailing hurdles that won’t go away in the near future.

Every year at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Indonesia’s government pats itself on the back over-proudly about diverting people from the criminal justice process. For those who work in the field, we know for sure that such “success” aren’t manifested in practice – and if there’s any, it should be attributed as well to the work of civil society actors and it seldom has nationwide implementation.

Indonesia’s approach towards drug policy, like many countries, is still steered by a prohibitionist manner: simple drug possession could imprison someone 4-12 years, selling/buying drugs more than 5 grams is an act punishable with the death penalty, and forced inpatient rehab is viewed as “humane” punishment.

As of October 2020, Indonesia’s prison capacity is around 135,000 yet it is filled with almost 240,000 people. Stopping to arrest people who use drugs will directly help the situation since the number of people who are charged with the drug law is almost 136,000 and most of them are people who use drugs.

In September 2019, Indonesia’s Parliament was one step away from moving the criminal charges in the drug law to the new criminal code. Such an attempt is dangerous for crystalizing the false logic of current criminal provisions on drugs. Since drug policy is a heavily-discussed issue, putting the drug-related criminal charges in the criminal code would risk the flexibility to reform. The separation of the criminal charges from other provisions of the drug law will also hinder the chance to have a comprehensive reform.

It’s important to note that when the President of Indonesia asks the Ministry of Law and Human Rights to stop discussing the bill with the parliament, his concerns about the law are not about the drug-related criminal charges.

Figure 1: Thousand of Students protested in front of the Parliament regarding the new criminal code and other controversial laws in Indonesia, September 2019

In COVID-19 context, prison settings are an important area to intervene on.  The Ministry of Law and Human Rights accelerates the process of parole, but it doesn’t come without backlash. Stigma towards inmates drives some people to think that such a move threatens community safety. And some incidents have already – regrettably – happened.

Prison authorities then started to limit visitation, even by lawyers, and several courts began holding online criminal proceedings. Such important initiatives, unfortunately, also complicates the delivery of legal assistance since lawyers can’t accompany their clients directly to the court– which resulted in more torture and extortion.

But it’s difficult to think that Indonesia seriously tackles the pandemic when law enforcement still arrests people who use drugs and even wears personal protective equipment (PPE) to do so, while the brave medical personnel are struggling to access the limited PPE in the country. The limited PPE was a serious concern in the early stages of the outbreak.

Figure 2: Indonesian police arrest a celebrity for simple drug possession in the middle of pandemic

Then it’s not a surprise when COVID-19 positive cases appear in several prisons and detention centers: Medan, Jakarta, Bekasi, Sungguminasa, Palembang, Pekanbaru, Surabaya, Cirebon, Sidoarjo, etc. 

The Ministry of Law and Human Rights, back in April, ideated to revise the current parole regulation that prohibited people who are sentenced with the drug law by five years or more of imprisonment to receive parole. That idea was rejected by many colleagues from the anti-corruption movement since the same regulation also administers parole for corruption inmates. The long and painful history of corruption in Indonesia made such rejection understandable but at the same time it shows how human rights and the idea of drug policy reform aren’t Indonesians’ top of mind, even between activists.

How the government designs drug policy showcases the lack of consideration of public health, the rule of law, and basic dignity for people who use drugs. COVID-19 and its colossal significance fail to inspire Indonesia’s authority to react to its criminal justice problem of which induced by its own drug law. Inclusive campaigns on the importance of drug policy reform are necessary since Indonesian drug policy reformers require more supporters – including the anti-corruption activists.