(*source: Vannease Hearman at The Conversation*)
In the 1980s, opposition to the death penalty imposed on political prisoners in Indonesia united Indonesians and citizens of countries around the world. from BOONROONG/www.shutterstock.com

World attention has focused on Indonesia’s recent executions. But this year also marks the 30th anniversary of the execution of three Indonesian political prisoners.

In 1985, the Suharto regime executed Joko Untung, Gatot Lestario and Rustomo. With little warning to their families, they were taken in the middle of the night to a field in Pamekasan on the island of Madura, off the north coast of East Java, and shot.

The men had been in prison since 1968 and 1969. Their crime was to try to resurrect the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in the southern parts of East Java.

Opposition to the death penalty during the Suharto era was primarily part of the campaign against the authoritarian regime in Indonesia. This campaign united Indonesian and international organisations and involved ordinary citizens in countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands.

The story of Gatot Lestario

Lestario was a high school teacher and an organiser of the PKI in East Java until 1965. The PKI was the third-largest communist party in the world at that time.

In September 1965, a group calling itself the 30th of September Movement kidnapped and killed seven high-ranking army officers. This was painted as a coup attempt against President Sukarno. The army leadership, led by Major General Suharto, blamed it on the PKI.

Half a million leftists were killed in the 1965-66 pogroms. Many were imprisoned, mostly without trial, for varying lengths of time. A small number of leftists categorised as those “most involved” in the 30th of September Movement, including communist leaders, were executed. Suharto became president in 1968 and led Indonesia for the next 30 years.

Lestario and a few dozen surviving PKI cadres managed to survive in hiding. In 1967, they retreated to construct a base in South Blitar to resist the Suharto regime.

The military destroyed the base by September 1968 and thousands were killed, arrested and displaced. The surviving militants were jailed, some in Jakarta and the rest, including Lestario, in East Java. He was tried and sentenced to death in 1976.

International campaign for Lestario

While on death row, Lestario, who was adept in Dutch and English in addition to Indonesian and Javanese languages, began writing to penfriends who were involved in the Quakers and Amnesty International. Lestario convinced his penfriends to take up his case in their respective countries and in Indonesia.

One of the founders of Amnesty International, Eric Baker was a Quaker and he urged the Quakers to support Amnesty’s anti-torture campaign launched in 1973. The Quakers set up the Campaign Against Torture and the Prisoner Befriending Scheme as a result. The scheme encouraged Quaker congregations to write to political prisoners around the world.

In 1983, Doreen Brown, who lived in London, sent Lestario a Christmas card to which he replied. Through his letters, Lestario was able to provide information to Amnesty International and Tapol, an Indonesian human rights organisation also based in London. Tapol was founded by former Indonesian political prisoner Carmel Budiardjo in 1973.

Lestario described prison conditions and the situation of the 22 political prisoners in Pamekasan. Despite being behind bars, Lestario worked with this transnational network to improve the conditions of political prisoners and to campaign for their release.

The Browns wrote and circulated two petitions, signed by hundreds of people, addressed to the Indonesian government for the release of Lestario and his wife Pudjiaswati. Lestario’s clemency appeal to President Suharto was denied in 1984.

In the same year, after a brief moratorium on executions, leftist prisoners began to be executed again, starting with Mohammad Munir. Munir was formerly a trade union leader with the World Federation of Trade Unions and member of the PKI Politburo.

Lestario expressed his concern to his penfriends about this worrying development. He hoped that Amnesty could pressure the foreign minister, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, on his 1985 visit to London to commute the Indonesian death sentences.

Despite his optimism, Lestario was shot in July 1985. His mother was able to spend his last moments with him. But his wife, herself in prison in East Java, and his children were not aware of his execution until days later.

In Westminster, England, the Browns organised a memorial meeting on October 2 1985 for the executed men. At the end of the meeting, people were asked to take home a flower to press and dry to remember the men by.

One year on, they published a book of extracts from Lestario’s letters, a tribute to their friend, titled The Last Years of Gatot Lestario. Handwritten then photocopied, hand-bound and stitched, the couple made 220 books and from the proceeds they raised funds for political prisoners in Indonesia and their families.

Campaign for abolition

The subversion law, upon which Lestario’s execution was based, was repealed in 1998 when the Suharto regime ended. But the death penalty still stands for other crimes.

The campaign against the death penalty today has been more difficult to maintain and less visible, because in the past it was so intertwined with the fight for democracy in Indonesia.

But a transnational campaign against the death penalty can be built today in the footsteps of previous campaigns developed between Indonesians and the international community.

This post is also available in: English