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Stories from the field | From the perspective of a human rights lawyer

In this video, Ricky Gunawan talks about his daily reality, fighting the death penalty for people who use drugs in Indonesia
I wanted to become a human rights lawyer to dedicate my legal knowledge and skills to fight against injustice and to better protect human rights, especially for those who are poor and oppressed. When I co-founded LBHM or the Community Legal Aid Institute in 2008 in Indonesia, it was because we wanted to empower marginalised people. As we were progressing, we found out that very few human rights NGOs or legal aid organisations were willing to provide legal assistance to people who use drugs or people facing the death penalty despite flagrant human rights abuses they routinely experience. We have now become a group of human rights lawyers with strong expertise on drugs law.
A third of the inquiries or client we get every day from communities of people who use drugs, who have no money to obtain competent legal support, or they have been tortured by the police or even extorted by the prison guards if family members wants to visit them. Many of these people, including many vulnerable women, have been abandoned by our society as well as by the legal system, often exploited by the drug syndicates who have intimidated or threatened them into committing drug crimes in the first place.
My first case, that related to drug and penalty was Humphrey Ejike Jefferson or Jeff, as we usually called him. It was back in 2008. He was a Nigerian restaurant owner in Jakarta who had been convicted of drug trafficking in 2003 after police found heroin hidden in the bed. He had protested his innocence throughout the legal process, he had been tortured by the police, He hadn’t had a proper legal defense as well as interpreter in the court, And the judges included racial bias, consideration in the court’s decisions, referring to his skin color and nationality. He was sentenced to death without any evidence of buying and selling drugs or any other co-defendants in the case.
A few years after his conviction, another guy came forward to confess that he had planted the drugs, but still it didn’t overturn Jeff’s death sentence. When we look into Jeff’s case, it was obvious that there had been blatant abuses of his human rights from the moment of his arrest. Jeff was then executed by the Indonesian government in July 2016 despite pending clemency decision. It was from his case I realized the gravity of the problem. Additionally, there were no lawyers or legal aid organizations at all back then in Indonesia prepared to defend the human rights of drug users, of people accused of drug crimes.
Drugs are illegal. Law enforcement does not differentiate whether you are a user or a trafficker of any kind of drugs. Drugs are also socially disapproved of, and people who use drugs, carry the stigma of being the garbage, of society. Put simply, drugs are seen as evil. And we also come across in many drug cases, gender sensitivities are not taken into account, for example, where vulnerable women have been persuaded to carry drugs because the syndicates knew that they had been in situations of domestic violence. On top of that, evidence may be fabricated and the system here is quite corrupt.
You know, criminal lawyers are either not interested in providing legal assistance to people who are seen to be abusing themselves by taking drugs, or they simply have no legal expertise in assisting in these cases. And we have also extreme penalties for those convicted of drug crimes. We have the death penalty. And here, half of around maybe 200 or more people who are now on death row have been convicted of drug offenses, some of them were our clients.
Well, from personal point of view, it is very hard, it is very challenging. When we fail to save someone from the death penalty, it is very frustrating. My first client, who has executed, affected me greatly. He called me his friend. His name was Rodrigo Gularte, a Brazilian national. He was sentenced to death for drug trafficking. He clearly had mental health problems, serious mental health problems. He suffered from bipolar and paranoid schizophrenia and had been on and off mental health treatment since he was a child. He didn’t even understand that he was going to be executed until a few minutes before it happened. We fought so hard for him because it was so clear that he was mentally ill.
But our appeal for clemency was not heard. And he was shot in April 2015. And after we brought his body back to Jakarta, initially, I couldn’t feel anything. I was trying to process what had happened. But when I returned to the office and saw my colleagues, I just broke down and and I and I cried non-stop for half an hour. I lost hope. My word was crushed. It was devastating, I felt like my skills were useless because I genuinely believe we were going to be able to save him. And for a year afterwards, every time I spoke about him, I would suddenly begin to break down and cry for him. The trauma haunts me still.
Well, it’s it’s still the case that those who suffered the most in my country are the are the poorest and most vulnerable. Access to legal support, access to justice, and also any kind of punishment can genuinely depend on who you are, where you come from, and if there are other co-defendants and whether perhaps you have the money to bribe your way out of trouble. So it’s not just a legal system, it’s a broken justice system. So I feel I have to fight for those who have no legal representation. And for those facing the death penalty. And I want to get the death penalty abolished here in Indonesia and of course, elsewhere. And we do have some successes.
This may be small victories, but they can be significant for those whose human rights are not being respected. It might be getting methadone for a prisoner who is on harm reduction treatment or it might be saving someone from death row. And I have assisted, for example, a young woman from Kyrgyzstan. This was back in 2011. We argued against the death penalty and she was given a lesser sentence. And she is now on conditional release from prison.
After I spoke at the UN General Assembly in 2016 to tell people what is happening in Indonesia, the huge and overwhelming support I received from across the world has inspired me and my friends to carry on. I feel that we have lots of friends. We have more and more human rights organizations now taking up drug policies as a cause for change in Indonesia, but few still who can act on behalf of those who need help. So we still have work to do. We are also trying to help educate the police about drugs and those who use drugs. Our current minister for law in Indonesia now has said publicly that he doesn’t agree with the death penalty.
But of course, being a politician, he has to support the government’s policies on drugs and on death penalty. So while we have few champions for changes within the government, like they do in countries like for example, Malaysia, there are people here that give us hope. In the meantime, while human rights abuses still occur, I will continue to fight to abolish the death penalty and for human rights, including those who use drugs who ranked lowest in Indonesian society.

Approaching the end of the first topic of Week 2, you will hear from a real-world experience, this time featuring a perspective on human rights. You will hear from Ricky Gunawan about his fight to defend people on dead-row in Indonesia. His powerful personal story tells it all. The human face behind the absurdity of useless repressive laws, violating human rights in the name of the war on drugs.


Ricky mentioned his intervention during the UN assembly in 2016, you can find his speech in the link below.

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Drug Use and Harm Reduction

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