Jakarta, Indonesia – Indonesia has sentenced scores of prisoners to death over Zoom and other video apps during the pandemic in what critics say is an "inhumane" insult to those facing the firing squad.
The Southeast Asian nation turned to virtual court hearings as COVID-19 restrictions shut down most in-person trials, including murder and drug trafficking cases, which can carry the death penalty.
Since early last year, almost 100 inmates have been condemned to die in Indonesia by judges they could only see on a television monitor, according to Amnesty International.
The Muslim-majority nation has some of the world's toughest drug laws and both Indonesian and foreign traffickers have been executed, including the masterminds of Australia's Bali Nine heroin gang.
This month, 13 members of a trafficking ring, including three Iranians and a Pakistani, learned via video that they would be shot for smuggling 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of methamphetamine into Indonesia.
And on Wednesday a Jakarta court sentenced six Islamist militants to death using a video app over their role in a 2018 prison riot that left five members of Indonesia's counter-terror squad dead.
"Virtual hearings degrade the rights of defendants facing death sentences – it's about someone's life and death," said Amnesty International Indonesia director Usman Hamid.
"The death penalty has always been a cruel punishment. But this online trend adds to the injustice and inhumanity," he added.
Indonesia has pressed on with the virtual hearings even as the number of executions and death sentences dropped globally last year, with COVID-19 disrupting many criminal proceedings, Amnesty said in its annual capital punishment report this week.
Virtual hearings leave defendants unable to fully participate in cases that are sometimes interrupted in countries with poor internet connections, including Indonesia, critics say.
"Virtual platforms... can expose the defendant to significant violations of their fair trial rights and impinge on the quality of the defense," NGO Harm Reduction International said in a recent report on the death penalty for drug offenses.
Lawyers have complained about being unable to consult with clients due to virus restrictions. And families of the accused have sometimes been barred from accessing hearings that would normally be open to the public.
"These virtual hearings present a clear disadvantage for defendants," said Indonesian lawyer Dedi Setiadi.
Setiadi, who defended several men sentenced to die in the methamphetamine case this month, said he would appeal their case on the grounds that virtual hearings were unfair. Relatives of the defendants were not given full access, the lawyer said.
Death penalty cases are often reduced to long jail terms in Indonesia and an in-person trial might have brought about a less severe verdict, according to Setiadi, who described his clients as low-level players in the smuggling ring.
"The verdict could have been different if the judges had talked directly with the defendants and seen their expressions," he said. "A Zoom hearing is less personal."
Indonesia's supreme court, which ordered online hearings during the pandemic, did not reply to requests for comment.
But the country's judicial commission told AFP that it has asked the top court to consider returning to in-person trials for serious offenses, including capital cases.
Indonesia appears to be an outlier in holding virtual trials for death penalty cases, although reliable data can be hard to come by in some nations that impose executions.
Neighboring Singapore, which executes convicted murderers and drug traffickers, has sentenced at least one person to hang via video since the global health crisis began.
There are nearly 500 people, including scores of foreigners, awaiting execution in Indonesia, where condemned prisoners are marched to a jungle clearing, tied to a stake and shot.
Indonesia has not carried out executions for several years. But its courts have continued to sentence defendants to death on the back of strong public backing for the ultimate punishment – support that may have been bolstered by the pandemic.
"Advocates think that these criminals are continuing to commit crimes even during a time of crisis when everyone is suffering," Amnesty's Hamid said. "So they must be given the heaviest sentence possible."