Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

No barrier to abolition: Analysing attitudes to the death penalty in Indonesia


Parvais Jabbar
Co-Executive Director, The Death Penalty Project


Time to read

5 Minutes

There are currently 355 people on death row in Indonesia – two thirds of whom were convicted of drug offences. The government’s assumption is that not only is the death penalty necessary for deterring further drug offenders and murderers, but that the people of Indonesia believe that serious offenders must be sentenced to death and executed to keep them safe. New research conducted by the Death Penalty Research Unit and our partner organisation, The Death Penalty Project, and launched today at a high-level meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, challenges those assumptions.

With the assistance of our partners in Indonesia, the community legal aid institute, LBH Masyarakat, and the Faculty of Law at the University of Indonesia, we produced two reports. Working with IPSOS, the market research company, we conducted a public opinion survey, securing a stratified random probability sample of 1,515 respondents – a sufficiently large sample to make inferences from our data about the views of the total Indonesian population. In addition to the public opinion survey, we produced a linked report drawing on interviews with 40 opinion formers. These were senior members of the media, representatives of NGOs, politicians, lawyers, criminal justice practitioners, judges, public servants, religious leaders and senior legal academics. Interviews with opinion formers offer insights into the attitudes of those who play a key role in informing and influencing society.

Most of the questions we asked of the 40 opinion formers were also asked of the public in the wider survey. As such, these two studies, when read in conjunction, have the potential to inform discourse, as well as policy and practice.

Opinion research that simply asks if people support the death penalty often finds high levels of public support in retentionist jurisdictions, but tells us nothing about whether that support is informed by understanding of how it is used, of the challenges to administering a fair and effective capital punishment system and of the disproportionate penalties that can be applied to vulnerable, disadvantaged people.

Past surveys conducted by The Death Penalty Project and the University of Oxford have sought to use more sophisticated methods to understand not only people’s opinions in the abstract, when asked a simple question about their support for the death penalty, but how strong those opinions are, how malleable they are. They can measure, for example, shifting views in light of information about how the death penalty is used in practice, about who gets sentenced to death and executed and for what types of offences.

In Indonesia, as in Malaysia and Trinidad, for example, we found that while support was high in the abstract, public opinions are neither strong nor well-informed. When a range of more sophisticated questions were asked and information provided, opinions in the abstract shifted, showing that they are not fixed and that opposition to abolition is far from entrenched.

In response to a general question about support for capital punishment in the abstract, we found little appetite for capital punishment among opinion formers: 67% supported abolition of the death penalty, and most of those were strongly in favour of abolition. 

Initially, the public felt differently: 69% of the public favoured retention of the death penalty, although only 35% were ‘strongly’ in favour of retention. Furthermore, when given the choice of alternative sentences, such as life in prison without parole, the number of those ‘strongly’ in favour of the death penalty fell to just 25%.

The reasons respondents gave in support of their views were similar. Both opinion formers and the public supported abolition because they were worried about the abuse of human rights, as well as the risk of wrongful conviction or execution. They also did not believe that the death penalty was a deterrent. Those who supported the death penalty were inclined to think that it could deter offending, and they also believed it should be kept because they believed that the public wants it.

The initial figure, suggesting that over two thirds of the Indonesian public want the death penalty to be retained, was not sustained when we asked subsequent in-depth questions.

We sought data on how much the public knew or cared about the death penalty in order to judge whether their initial responses represented gut reactions to an emotive question (a desire to see wrongdoers punished) or well-informed, reasoned views.

Opinion formers were found to be reasonably well informed about the death penalty and wider criminal justice system. But the public lacked knowledge, with only 2% considering themselves to be ‘very well informed’, and only 4% ‘very concerned’ about the issue.

Though 69% of the public said they supported capital punishment, when given details about a realistic case of a man who killed a shop owner with a firearm during a robbery, only 40% thought he deserved the death penalty. And when they were then told that the man had no previous convictions, only 9% thought he deserved the death penalty.

Similarly, only 50% thought a ‘kingpin’ drug trafficker deserved the death penalty, and for a similar case where the defendant was poor and uneducated, simply exploited as a drug mule, only 14% thought he deserved the death penalty.

Between a third and a half of the public who initially supported the retention of the death penalty indicated that they would change their minds and support abolition given certain information. Hence, while in the abstract, only 18% of the public would support abolition of the death penalty, this rose to 47% if they knew that the death penalty was applied unfairly; to 46% if they knew that wrongful convictions occur; to 38% if they knew that there was no deterrent effect; and would rise to 37% if religious leaders showed support for abolition.

Some of these measures speak to low levels of trust in the Indonesian criminal justice system. Indeed, we found that only just over a third of the public thought they could trust the justice system to treat them fairly if they were falsely accused of a crime, with a similar proportion not trusting it to provide adequate safeguards to prevent miscarriages of justice.

Though the main rationale for supporting the death penalty among the public and opinion formers was a belief that it deterred serious crime, our data shows that the appetite for capital punishment for its alleged deterrent effect is weak. When questioned about preferred measures to reduce serious crime in Indonesia, neither opinion formers nor the public focused on the death penalty. The majority showed a preference for more effective policing, poverty reduction or therapeutic policies. When asked which measures would best reduce drug crime, only two out of the 40 opinion formers suggested more death sentences or executions, and only 9% of the public suggested increasing death sentences, with just 6% suggesting more executions. Rather than following an approach of penal populism – which aims to solve social problems through punishments, rather than social justice measures – public responses showed more faith in social and therapeutic justice.

Overall, the findings demonstrate that public views are highly malleable and readily change when presented with new information. When asked what would happen if the government were to abolish the death penalty, the majority of public respondents said that they and others would “accept [abolition] as government policy, even if they were unhappy about it.”

Our interviews with opinion formers showed a clear preference for abolition and an appetite for changes to the criminal justice system. When asked what would happen if the government were to abolish the death penalty, most stated: “There might be some demonstration or expressions of dissatisfaction, but the majority of the public would come to accept it once the law was passed.” All our data point in that direction.

Through asking detailed and nuanced questions, these findings provide up-to-date, reliable data which have the potential to move the discourse around capital punishment in Indonesia beyond the government’s existing assumptions about deterrence and public opinion. As the limits of support for retention become clearer, the prospect of abolition appears more feasible.

Although continuing to impose high numbers of death sentences, the death penalty is not used as a mandatory sentence for any offence in Indonesia, unlike its closest neighbouring jurisdictions, Malaysia and Singapore. Furthermore, almost five years have passed since the last execution was carried out in Indonesia in July 2016. Our research demonstrates that opinions among the public and those who guide and inform them present no barrier to Indonesia taking the further and final step of abolishing the death penalty altogether – joining the majority of states worldwide that have now done so.

Carolyn Hoyle is Professor of Criminology in the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford and Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit (DPRU). 

Parvais Jabbar is Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project.