Wed, Mar 11, 2015 - Page 5 News List

Indonesia’s Alcatraz highlights divide over death penalty

AFP, CILACAP, Indonesia

Local residents on Sunday gather at the port in Cilacap, Java, near the ferry boat to Nusakambangan, seen in the background, the prison island known as Indonesia’s “Alcatraz.”

Photo: AFP

Nusakambangan, dubbed Indonesia’s Alcatraz, is known internationally as a grim prison island and execution site. However, inside the country, many see it as a proud symbol of the fight against drugs.

Last week, the two Australian ringleaders of the so-called “Bali Nine” heroin smuggling group, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were transferred to the island and are to soon face the firing squad, despite a wave of international criticism.

From Indonesia’s perspective, the island is not only a key part of the country’s battle against drugs, but some even believe its macabre reputation poses no challenge to a future as a top tourist spot with idyllic beaches.

Nusakambangan highlights the gulf in views between Indonesia, where the death penalty for drug traffickers has solid public support, and some of the countries whose citizens will soon be put to death, particularly Australia.

“Nusakambangan is not just a point of pride for the people of Cilacap, but all Indonesians,” said gemstone trader Edy, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, referring to the Javanese port town that is the gateway to the island. “Indonesians think executions are a good way to fight drugs.”

Despite his image as a reformist, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has made the campaign to execute drug traffickers a key policy, a move analysts say is aimed at showing he is a tough leader. The first executions during his presidency were in January, when six drug convicts — including five foreigners — were put to death, unleashing a diplomatic furor.

While there are dissenting voices, notably from academics and rights groups, and no comprehensive studies have been conducted, the policy has won broad public backing and there has been only muted political opposition.

The policy shift signals that Nusakambangan is likely to become the site of regular executions.

Despite repeated appeals from Canberra, Chan and Sukumaran were brought there under heavy military escort last week.

They are expected to be put to death in the near future at the same time as drug convicts from France, Brazil, the Philippines, Nigeria and Ghana, although no date has been set.

Nusakambangan has served as a penal colony since Indonesia’s then-Dutch rulers began detaining prisoners there more than a century ago. Today, those colonial jails, long decommissioned, can still be seen by visitors.

The modern prisons make up a sprawling complex across the island’s interior, with seven facilities ranging from maximum security to an “open” prison where inmates work in fields.

Many of the country’s most notorious murderers and militants have been sent to Nusakambangan. Imam Samudra, Amrozi and Mukhlas, who carried out the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, were executed there in late 2008.

The local view of Nusakambangan is far from that of a dark, foreboding execution island. It has a budding tourist industry, with boat operators at Cilacap’s main beach saying they take up to 100 — mainly Indonesian — visitors each Sunday across the narrow strait to explore the island’s white-sand beaches and caves.

Local district deputy leader Akhmad Edi Susanto envisions a day when the island — with its beaches “more beautiful than Bali” — can attract the levels of tourism enjoyed by Alcatraz.

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