Asia Catalyst

[COMMENTARY] Street Lawyering in Jakarta

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Last week I went to Jakarta with the harm reduction program director for Open Society Institute and met with a half dozen grassroots groups of injection drug users (IDU). In Indonesia, where AIDS is ravaging the country due to the rapidly-escalating use of drugs, young people have responded by starting small nonprofit groups to reach out to drug users on the street. They hand out clean needles, give advice on AIDS prevention, help people get medical care when they need it, and advocate with the local police. And they're doing some innovative things on the human rights front, too.

First example: training drug users as paralegals. I got to sit in on a training for drug users on their legal rights not long ago, where participants learned how to advocate for their friends when they get thrown in the clink.


Here's why: There's widespread social panic about drug dependency in Indonesia, and some groups, especially religious groups, are pushing on the police to crack down hard. Cops in Indonesia have been told to jail as many drug users and dealers as possible, so they're rounding up people on the street. While Indonesian law gives judges the option to sentence drug users to rehab, more often judges throw them in jail, sometimes for years, and sometimes on the basis of confessions that were beaten out of them first. Of course, this does less than nothing to end drug addiction, but as in many other countries, effectiveness apparently comes second to morality.


And while drug users have the right to legal counsel in cases like these, few lawyers are willing to take them on. What's more, if a drug user shows up with a lawyer, it can send the wrong signal. To cops in a country where corruption is even more rampant than it is in Illinois, the presence of a lawyer says, "This guy has more money than we thought - let's beat him up and extort a massive bribe".


In response, the drug user NGO Stigma is partnering with legal aid group Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Masyarakat (LBH) to hold extensive legal training workshops for drug users. They keep the workshops short - Ricky Gunawan, a lawyer who leads workshops, observed that even recovering drug users don't sit still for long - and then give a tough test at the end of the training. The test is open book, so that trainees can consult each other, just as they would probably do in real life. Gunawan says that only 20% of the people who test actually pass, which shows that the program means business.


It's what they used to call "barefoot lawyering" in China. What happens when the first class of paralegals goes out on the streets? Will drug users be confident enough to stand up to the cops? Will cops listen to them? It will be fascinating to see how this works out.


Second case in point: the Jangkar report. Jangkar, a network of 75 drug user groups around the country, noted that a lot of their members were reporting police abuse; but no one had evidence that could be used to push for change.


They got together representatives from each of their groups, and interviewed over 1100 drug users around the country. 62 percent said they had suffered some form of abuse in detention: beaten with chairs, pistol butts, blackjacks; burned with cigarette butts; given electrical shocks.


Using this report, Jangkar has given presentations at international conferences, and as a consultant for OSI, I went with them to meet with senior police officers. Police were disturbed but open to hearing the evidence these groups had found. The report was not just good data, but an excellent advocacy tool.


Of course, not every country has the political space to do a project like this one. When I told Chinese AIDS organizations about the Jangkar report last fall, most just sighed and said, "Police abuse against drug users is very common, and people even die in detention, but we have no hope of doing a report like that here." Any group attempting it would be shut down pretty quickly.


But the report also represents a great model of collaborative research across a national network of tiny NGOs, something that Chinese groups could do - albeit perhaps they'd have to start with a less "sensitive" issue.


It's hard to say at this stage how much of this legal aid and human rights documentation by IDU groups will lead to lasting change. But these groups are trying new models, thinking outside the box, and working together effectively across large regions that are as linguistically and culturally diverse as anywhere in the world.


These IDU groups may be relatively new to human rights advocacy, but civil society in Indonesia is well past the novice stage - after all, it brought down a dictatorship barely ten years ago. If these experimental new approaches don't work out, no doubt these flexible and creative groups will just adapt and try something else. The rest of us might learn something by watching what they come up with.


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