As I write this two Australians are under threat of death penalty in Indonesia. Before them one Dutch man was executed for a similar (drug) offense. This in spite of calls for leniency on the highest level. King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands tried to stop the execution by a personal call on the Indonesian President Joko Widodo. However the answer was still “no”. Also now, in the Australian cases, President Joko Widodo has no mercy. Australia has tried everything, begging, threatening, bribing (prisoners trade), but no avail. You must think that the President of Indonesia is a barbaric person.
And yet, I think, that's not the whole truth. Joko Widodo is a pious muslim. He is about as virtuous you can get in such a big country at such a high level. It might serve as reminder that the guy he beat in last election was a general with a reputation for torture, mass murder and corruption (Prabowo Subianto). If you think that he won with overwhelming majority you are wrong (53.15%). Joko Widodo's power base is smaller than that of his generals. Strict adherence to the law is a necessity to keep them in line.
So in that sense it is no surprise that Dutch and Australian pleas for leniency went to deaf ears. But in a larger sense there is also another problem. President Widodo said as much when he refused to give a pardon. Western countries should respect other nation's laws! This, I think, is the heart of the matter.
What happens when a twenty-one year old nice looking disco babe from the Netherlands goes to India to get some drugs? She comes to airport. Acts a bit nervous. A policeman sees it, and puts a dog to smell. Now it depends where that airport is. If it was Schiphol (Amsterdam), she would get a sentence of a couple of months (if it was the first time). If the airport is in Jakarta, she would face a sentence of tens of years. That's not a nice prospect to look forward too. Spending the best years of your life in a crowdy prison where anyone can harass you. You could say “why didn't she think of this before?”. And then I can only say “good question”. There are many who would feel for her. Her parents would be in tears. The newspapers would publish a story about her every day. Her friends would say that she is actually a nice girl and make calls to set her free.
None of that would really help. Help usually goes through the diplomatic channels. We have embassies, and part of what they do is trying to get our citizens back to our society. Sometimes we succeed. When a criminal is sent back to where she (or he) came from we review the sentence according to our own laws. That often means immediate release. Happy foolish criminal!
However the countries that delivered the criminals to us view that as absurd. Here, they have caught some bad apples and we are setting them free! Just like that! It is because we have made so many petty criminals happy this way that countries like Indonesia and India don't want to give them to us any more. They don't listen to us when we try to convince them that they should treat criminals the way we treat them. In their view our laws are more corrupt and immoral than theirs. So, many of our fellow citizens are left to rot in their prisons. The circumstances of imprisonment are never good in countries where there is lot of poverty. There are good chances you die from violence or disease before your release date. Wouldn't it be better to be in a western cell than in an Asian cell? That's something to think about.
Maybe we should do as President Widodo said. Respect the sentence of his nation. Maybe we get some prisoners back when we guarantee that they don't get free the moment they hit European soil. Twenty years might then still be twenty years, but you will be cared for and at least you can see your loved ones now and then. And it will also serve to foolish ones as a reminder. You don't get off the hook. Even when they let you come back here.