Jakarta – Indonesian President Joko Widodo has granted clemency to a woman who spent more than 20 years on death row for drug smuggling, a move rights group Amnesty called "unprecedented".
Merri Utami, 49, was sentenced to death in 2002 by a court in Tangerang, west of the capital Jakarta, after she was found guilty of trying to smuggle heroin into Indonesia. She claimed she had been duped into becoming a drug mule.
"We appreciate this clemency decision. Finally, the President wants to open his eyes that drug crimes are not only about drug kingpins and... harsh punishments," said Ms Aisya Humaida, one of Merri's lawyers.
Amnesty International's Indonesia executive director Usman Hamid welcomed the decision to grant clemency to a drug convict on death row, terming it "unprecedented" under Mr Widodo's administration.
"This is important to show that there is no correlation, let alone causality, between the death sentence and the decline in narcotics crimes," said Mr Usman.
Merri's lawyers were considering next steps in order to try to further reduce her sentence, Ms Aisya said.
Mr Widodo granted Merri clemency almost seven years after she first sent a plea to the President.
In 2014, he declared a "drug emergency" soon after coming to power, calling for harsher punishments for drug offences and reinstating executions.
His government has, however, begun to amend its hardline policies, said human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis.
"There is a change in policy," he said. "The National Narcotics Agency used to actively advocate the death penalty for drug offenders. Now, (they are) focused on rehabilitation."
Indonesia handed down at least 114 death sentences in 2021, according to an Amnesty International report, bringing the size of its death row to more than 500, including a number of foreigners.
As at 2021, 82 per cent of all recorded death sentences were awarded for drug-related offences, according to the report.
Merri was moments away from being executed in 2016, but the authorities spared her and nine other convicts at the last minute.
Another female convict, Filipino Mary Jane Veloso, was also set to face the firing squad in 2015, but was granted a reprieve after a woman suspected of recruiting her was arrested in the Philippines.
Veloso was arrested in Indonesia in 2010 for carrying a suitcase lined with 2.6kg of heroin, and was later sentenced to death.
The Philippine government sought clemency in 2022 for Veloso, the latest high-level attempt to save her life.