Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Monday, August 29, 2005

Enforcing Unjust Laws

There's been a spate of Australians and other foreigners arrested on petty drug charges in Indonesia, especially Bali, recently. These people, caught with anything from a few kilos of heroin (fairly serious) to two ectasy tablets (laughably non-serious) face universally harsh punishments, ranging from the death penalty (heroin traffacking) to 10-15 year in jail (minor possession). The arrests have been due to a clampdown on police corruption and a new tough on drugs policy by president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. My question is, where is the outrage at these insane laws?

Yes, there was outrage over Schapelle Corby, but most of the outrage was misdirected. Somehow many Australians convinced themselves that she was not guilty and that she was going to be convicted due to a barbaric and corrupt Indonesian legal system. I think that outrage missed the facts of the matter - the fact is that if you're caught with drugs in your possession at an airport, whether it be in Australia or Indonesia, you'e going down unless you can establish a convincing explanation as to how they might otherwise have gotten there. Given the nature of the crime, it's essentially impossible for the prosecution to establish positively that the accused placed the drugs in their bag before hopping on the plane, and laws across the world are drafted with that in mind.

But there is still good reason for some degree of outrage over the extraordinarily high level of punishment faced by these people caught with drugs in Indonesia and almost no one seems to be getting outraged over it. Mihchelle Lesley seems to be a paradigm case of this ?she is facing 15 years in prison because she was caught with 2 pills of ecstasy. Am I the only one who thinks this is completely insane?

Paternalistic drug laws which criminalise the personal use of minimally addictive and minimally harmful drugs such as ecstasy and marijuana are difficult enough to rationalise at the best of times (especially when compared to drugs like alcohol and nicotine, and use of the latter I personally know is endemic in Bali). When enforcement of these laws results in essentially ruining an individual user's life it gets even more ludicrous - the punishment is so out of proportion with any possible damage to society that these laws cannot possibly be just.*

And things are getting even worse. A little while ago police in Jakarta started random urine testing of patrons in night clubs because everyone was dropping their stash when they rocked up with sniffer dogs. These tests take a couple of hours to conduct on a particular night club's clientele and are an incredibly intrusive invasion of privacy and disruption of a night out even for non-drug users. No wonder this policy has apparently resulted in the loss of 40,000 hospitality workers in Jakarta in the time its been implemented. Now the policy looks like it's going to be extended to Bali nightclubs.

These actions are nonsensical. To try and stop foreign tourists doing themselves some unknown amount of personal harm by taking recreational drugs, the Indonesian authorities are doing huge damage to their tourist and hospitality industries and potentially wrecking the lives of the unfortunates who get caught with the drugs in the system.

Of course, we can't do all that much to influence the Indonesian government. But surely the least we could do is complain about this, especially when one of our citizens gets a couple of decades in prison for doing what would probably result be a legal slap on the wrist (by comparison, anyway) over here. Everyone seems to accept the 'well, they were warned' argument, but I don't buy it at all. Just because a person is warned that they are going to be executed for a speeding offence wouldn't make that punishment any more justified and I'd say the same here. These drug laws, and others across South East Asia, are ridiculously harsh and we should complain when one of our citizens is punished under them.

I understand that many of these countries have huge problems with drug production and distribution and these laws are the result of decades long campaigns to try and stamp out the trade. But there is a categorical difference between extremely destructive and addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine (for which I can accept a measure of extreme harshness is justified) and the sort of drugs tourists will take to spice a night out up. I'm no personal fan of drugs (heck, I'm a teetotaler) but if there's tourists lives getting ruined by recreational drugs it's not because of the drugs themselves, it's because of these laws and we shouldn't be afraid to say so just because this is happening in a different country.

*Yes, yes 'just' by my standards, but I'm giving my opinion here so they're the standards that are getting used!

7 Comments:

  • I've never so much as touched any sort of illegal drug, but even so I avoid most of SE Asia if I can - I just don't want to leave open the possibility that I might get caught up in this sort of mess.

    It's like how I (and many others) refuse to drive in Spain: countries that create ridiculously harsh legal systems with unfair treatment of foreigners will ultimately be the victims of their own "tough on crime" legislation.

    I have been thinking though since the Schappelle Corby business that in Australia we should really make more allowances for the difficulties experienced by foreigners caught up in our legal system - increased legal aid, expedited trials, and a reluctance to hold them in custody prior to sentencing.

    By Blogger Splat Guy, at 9:39 PM  

  • I have been thinking though since the Schappelle Corby business that in Australia we should really make more allowances for the difficulties experienced by foreigners caught up in our legal system - increased legal aid, expedited trials, and a reluctance to hold them in custody prior to sentencing.
    Absolutely right. Someone ran an opinion piece in the Age a few months ago detailing the story of a couple of Japanese tourists who got caught in a Melbourne airport with a substantial number of drugs. Their bags had been switched at a stop over airport (this was an uncontested fact), but they still went down for 10 years (don’t know what the non-parole period was). They had big problems in our legal system with translation and cultural differences. They didn’t strongly assert their innocence, for cultural reasons, and this made them look suspicious but was really a cultural misunderstanding. Good point.

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 9:25 AM  

  • That would be the Chika Honda case, which was making the forum rounds during Schapelle's trial but which I didn't see mentioned anywhere in the mainstream media.

    By Blogger John Lee, at 9:54 AM  

  • Thanks for linking that, I'd forgotten the details.

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 10:07 AM  

  • That much time for two pills is criminal itself. Do you have any resources to try and lessen this sentence?

    By Blogger Justin Gardner, at 3:26 PM  

  • @Justin
    I didn't make it clear - she hasn't been tried yet. That figure was what was originally reported as her likely sentence, it now seems more likely it's going to be between 5 and 10 years which is still crazy:

    "Mr Rifan said Leslie was charged with offences that carried a maximum 15-year jail sentence, but could be charged under a different law that relates to only drug possession with a maximum five-year penalty.

    "There is a very big difference between the terms," Mr Rifan said. Police could amend the final charges depending on their investigation, he said.

    That possession of only two tablets was alleged might not matter, he said. "In our system they make no differentiation between half a tablet and 10 tablets."

    Mr Rifan said he knew of cases in Bali where people had been jailed for more than five years for having a couple of ecstasy tablets." (SMH)

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 9:52 AM  

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