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For Women Swept Up in the Drug Trade, Legal Help That Starts Early

This piece was written by Muhammad Afif & Yosua Octavian and was published in Open Society Foundations’ website on 22 June 2016.

 

Rani Andriani was just 23 when she was sentenced to death for trafficking three-and-a-half kilograms of heroin. From a family of modest means in West Java, she had been a bright high school student and a dedicated daughter. Young, naïve, and under the financial stress that affects so many village families, she was lured by the false promises of a drug syndicate and became a drug mule.

After serving 15 years in prison for drug trafficking, Rani was executed in January 2015, along with five other drug offenders.

Poor and marginalized women like Rani are vulnerable to being sucked into the drug trade, usually as mules. Yet in its eagerness to address the drug problem, the Indonesian government ignores the conditions that trigger the involvement of everyday people in drug trafficking.

LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid Institute), a Jakarta-based human rights organization, seeks to challenge this injustice by providing free legal services to people who use drugs and people on death row for drug offenses.

This year, LBH Masyarakat went to court to defend three young women like Rani. By stepping in early, we succeeded in convincing the court not to impose the death penalty. The stories of Tara, Evie, and Siena (not their real names) are the stories of many vulnerable women in Indonesia.

Tara was a widow from a poor economic background. Her entry into the drug trade was through Kenny, a foreigner who claimed to be a rich businessman. After a few meetings, they started dating and Kenny promised to marry her. Madly in love, Tara would have done anything to maintain their relationship—even carry a kilogram of methamphetamine. After she delivered the narcotics, she was arrested. Kenny was never charged, despite the information Tara gave them about his involvement in the deal.

Evie’s experience was similar. After a few months of dating Jacky, a man who also purported to be a wealthy businessman, Evie was asked to hire a woman who would be willing to pick up a package from a courier service. Evie recruited Siena, who needed the money, at a beauty salon. After the two women picked up Jacky’s package, they were arrested and charged with trafficking four-and-a-half kilograms of methamphetamine. As in Tara’s case, Jacky was neither found nor arrested, even though Evie and Siena told the police of his whereabouts.

Tara, Evie, and Siena share a common problem: they are poor and vulnerable to drug syndicates. In some cases, a person charged with trafficking may be genuinely unaware they were ever in possession of drugs. In other cases, they may be paid, or under pressure in a relationship with a significant power imbalance.

In defending Tara, Evie, and Siena, we summoned expert witnesses to provide critical extra information about the use of women as mules in the drug trade, shedding new light on these cases for the prosecutors and judges. In the case of Tara, LBH Masyarakat also argued that she was a cooperating witness—or “justice collaborator”—as confirmed by the Witness and Victims Protection Agency. These arguments were effective—none of the women were sentenced to death. But, given sentences that ranged from 12 to 14 years, all three of them still lost their youth.

For over a decade, we have been deeply involved in the movement to abolish the death penalty in Indonesia, and have provided legal assistance to people facing it. We also work globally to end the death penalty, including through the United Nations, where in April our government was booed, and where a consensus on ending capital punishment was not reached.

We know that in a broken and corrupt system where capital punishment is on the table, poor women like Tara, Evie, and Siena can be easily and unfairly sentenced to death. We are also aware that judges and prosecutors have very little knowledge about the vulnerability of female drug mules.

These cases taught us the importance of early access to justice for vulnerable people. We have witnessed so many cases in which drug offenders were sentenced to death because they did not have adequate legal assistance. There are cases in which defense lawyers take money from their clients and disappear, and cases in which lawyers are connected with the police—a clear conflict of interest. There are also cases in which defense lawyers are present and attentive throughout the process, but do not have the necessary expertise in criminal defense, the death penalty, or drug offenses.

We call on the Indonesian government to support law enforcement agencies and actors in the justice system to understand the conditions that result in women acting as drug mules. The Indonesian government must address the roots of our drug problem, not just its symptoms.

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