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Counselling, not crocodiles: Indonesia anti-drug czar flags new strategy

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NATIONAL Narcotics Agency chief Heru Winarko (center) holds drugs before they are destroyed at an event at the agency’s headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia in this March 26 photo taken by Antara Foto. — REUTERS

JAKARTA — Indonesia’s new anti-narcotics chief Heru Winarko called for an expansion of rehabilitation centers across the country on Wednesday, flagging a new approach in contrast to the blood-soaked war on drugs underway in its neighbor, the Philippines.

More users, addicts and even minor dealers would be diverted into centers run by medical professionals and counsellors rather than heading straight into an over-crowded prison system, Mr. Winarko told Reuters in an interview.

“With the rehabilitation approach, we cut the demand,” he said. “If there is no demand, the supply will not come or reduce.”

Mr. Winarko took over as head of Indonesia’s anti-narcotics agency in March, replacing Budi Waseso, a former top police officer who advocated surrounding prisons with moats filled with crocodiles and piranhas to stop drug convicts escaping.

Rather than wildlife, Mr. Winarko said he planned to set up rehabilitation facilities near prisons.

“It is better if there is a rehabilitation center located close to a prison,” he said, noting that a former mental hospital near a correctional facility in Bali was being converted into a center for offenders to tackle addiction.

“When we do it like this, it will be amazing. The prison becomes a place for guiding people.”

Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, has long warned that the country was gripped by a “drugs emergency” amid assertions by officials — challenged by some experts — that there were more than 6 million users.

Mr. Widodo has said drugs posed a bigger danger than Islamist militancy and he intensified a drugs war that has included the execution of drug traffickers, including some foreigners.

Mr. Winarko said there needed to be rapid growth in assessment centers which determine if drug convicts would benefit from therapy rather than incarceration.

The country’s 127 rehabilitation centers were inadequate for a population of 250 million, and more should be built and existing facilities better integrated, he said.

David McRea, a researcher from the University of Melbourne, said Mr. Winarko’s enthusiasm for rehabilitation needed to be treated cautiously.

Indonesia’s criminal justice system already allowed for some offenders to be rehabilitated but the option was rarely used.

“For years, there’s been talk in Indonesia of a shift to rehabilitate people but people are still being sentenced to prison for petty drug crimes,” he said.

Methamphetamine, known as shabu, is the most popular drug, according to Mr. Winarko.

More than two tonnes of methamphetamine was seized off the coast of Sumatra island in February in two separate, record busts.

Law enforcement officials would maintain their “stern” approach to traffickers and their “shoot to kill” policy if suspects were armed and resisted arrest, said Mr. Winarko.

But he added Indonesia would not mimic the violent policies of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who was praised by his predecessor, Mr. Waseso.

“We have our own standard operating procedures,” Mr. Winarko said.

More than 4,100 people have died during police anti-narcotics operations in the Philippines since July 2016. Another 2,300 have been killed by unidentified gunmen.

Philippines authorities say their actions are lawful and the deaths occur when suspects threaten police.

However, human rights groups and United Nations officials have accused Philippine anti-drugs agents of extrajudicial killings. Police deny that.

According to Amnesty International, Indonesian police killed 98 drug suspects in 2017, up from 18 the previous year.

It said the deaths were rarely investigated.

Mr. McRea from the University of Melbourne said the trend of rising drug-related slayings continued in Indonesia this year and was “disturbing.” — Reuters