JAKARTA, Indonesia – Yusman Talembanua felt blessed after the Indonesian supreme court annulled his death sentence, leading to him being freed from prison two months ago.
Mr. Talembanua told The Globe Post that he is ready to start a new life after spending five years in jail for a crime he did not commit.
“I hope I can continue my school soon,” Mr. Talembanua said in a phone call.
The 20-year old’s life was complicated even when he was very young. In mid-2012, he and his brother-in-law were accused of killing and burning three people in his hometown of Nias in North Sumatra.
Mr. Talembanua, who did not graduate from elementary school, said police forced him to confess to the murder, even though the real perpetrators had fled and were never caught. In addition, in order to be charged under the law, he was also forced to admit to being 19 years old, when he was actually only 16.
Only able to speak local languages, Mr. Talembanua said he was not given an Indonesian translator and failed to understand almost the entire judicial process.
In mid-2013, a panel of judges in the Gunungsitoli District Court sentenced Mr. Talembanua and his brother-in-law to death, a heavier sentence than the prosecution’s recommendation of life in prison. Until it was conferred, Mr. Talembanua, who can’t read or write, said he did not really understand the severity of his punishment.
He said his time in the high-security Nusakambangan prison island in Central Java’s Cilacap regency was the hardest period in his life.
“It was in Nusakambangan Prison that I just knew how the death penalty was done, shot in front of firing squad,” he said.
Mr. Talembanua said he was afraid an officer could take him for execution at any time.
“Those days are very traumatic for me,” he said.
In 2014, he met representatives of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), a Jakarta-based human rights organization, which helped him to appeal his death sentence to the supreme court.
But it was not easy to prove that Mr. Talembanua was a child when the verdict was dropped because he did not have birth certificate or other family documents.
Finally, a doctor performed a forensic examination of his teeth and bones, and concluded he was only 15 years old when the murder took place.
The supreme court granted the lawsuit earlier this year, annulling the death sentence to five years in prison. Mr. Talembanua was released on August 17, coinciding with country’s independence day celebrations.
“In the near future, I plan to meet with the victim’s family and explain that I am not the actual murderer,” he said.
Mr. Talembanua hopes the government and law enforcement officers will be fair to everyone without discrimination. “The law should be enforced fairly, and may the death penalty be abolished in Indonesia,” he said.
Demands for the elimination of the death penalty
KontraS Advocacy Division Head Putri Kanesia told The Globe Post that Mr. Talembanua is one of many victims of unfair and unprofessional legal process in Indonesia.
“KontraS finds a lot of unfair trials or case engineering experienced by death row convicts,” said Ms. Kanesia.
“It is dangerous because if they are actually not guilty, but then executed, then the Indonesian government has legalized arbitrary killings,” she added.
The death penalty was brought into the spotlight in 2015 when the government delayed the execution of a Filipino woman, Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso, at the last moment because she was allegedly a victim of human trafficking and trapped by international drug syndicates.
Ms. Kanesia said that Mr. Talembanua’s case should be an important lesson for governments and law enforcement to review the application of capital punishment in the country.
Since taking office in 2014, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has allowed the execution of 18 drug smugglers, mostly foreigners, leading to criticism from the international community. On various occasions, Mr. Jokowi declared a war on drugs, claiming that narcotics kill at least 50 Indonesian citizens every day.
KontraS and other human rights groups launched a campaign against the death penalty, but have faced numerous obstacles.
The Coalition for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in ASEAN (CADPA) says recent trends indicate that some countries in the region actually have a “shoot-on-sight” policy as an instrument to combat drug-related offences.
CADPA Director Rafendi Djamin said that in an attempt to control the production, trafficking and use of illicit drugs, the Philippines and Indonesia have begun a violent war against drugs that is characterized by the use of excessive force and massive human rights violations.
“Recent developments in the region are worrisome. In fact, there is no evidence that harsh drug policies have any effect on drug use, trafficking or production,” Mr. Djamin told The Globe Post.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte‘s policies have reportedly cost the lives of more than 13,000 drug suspects who were shot on the spot during police raids.
According to Amnesty International Indonesia, at least 80 drug suspects, including eight foreigners, have been shot by Indonesian police officers since the beginning of this year – a drastic increase compared to the 18 people killed in similar circumstances last year.
“Considering the recent developments in Indonesia, it is not hard to draw a parallel to the ongoing war on drugs in the Philippines,” Mr. Djamin said.
Although the death penalty is widely considered an inhumane and degrading treatment, the majority of citizens in some ASEAN countries support the death penalty.
A CADPA survey in 2016 showed that 85 percent of population in Indonesia agreed with the death penalty, followed by 76 percent in Singapore and 91 percent in Vietnam.
Government seeks the middle position
Indonesia’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yasonna Laloly said the government and the House of Representatives in the near future will draft a new criminal law that will end the debate over the death penalty.
Even so, he asserted, the death penalty would remain in force in Indonesia, but only as an alternative punishment that could be reviewed.
“There are parties who support and reject the death penalty, then the government will take the middle position,” he said.
At least 165 death row inmates were executed in Indonesia from January to October. Seven were women and 42 were foreign nationals.
Under the new rules, a death row inmate must wait 10 years before the government reviews the verdict. With good behavior, a person’s death sentence could be reduced to life or 20 years in prison.