Death by firing squad for British woman in Bali

Condemned: Lindsay Sandiford will appeal her sentence from an Indonesian jail © Getty Images

An Indonesian court has given 56-year-old grandmother Lindsay Sandiford a death sentence for smuggling over £1.5 million of cocaine. Why does the gravest of punishments still exist?

When Lindsay Sandiford’s trial ended, the outcome came as a shock to everyone. For the crime of trafficking drugs into Indonesia, the prosecution asked for a 15 year jail sentence. But the judge enforced a harsher punishment: death by firing squad.

This story of a grandmother sentenced to a punishment deemed barbaric in her native UK made international front page news. Indonesia has one of the world’s harshest drug policies: today, 40 foreign nationals await execution for drug offences, and 5 have been executed since 1998.

But Sandiford, who was allegedly caught with £1.6 million worth of cocaine in her suitcase, will be unlucky if she does pay the ultimate price. In response to international and internal pressure, some of Indonesia’s politicians are moving to phase out capital punishment: no-one has been executed in the country since 2008, and many death sentences have been reduced to life imprisonment on appeal.

If it chooses abolition, Indonesia will follow a global trend. In the past decade, an average of three countries have outlawed the death penalty each year, and only one European nation, Belarus, maintains the punishment.

But the road to abolition is littered with challenges and disappointments. Until recently, no one had been executed in Pakistan in the last five years. But last November, hopes for a ban were dashed when a soldier was put to death by hanging.

Other countries cling more stubbornly to capital punishment. In 2011, 676 people were executed in 20 countries worldwide, and over 18,000 were under sentence of death. China, the worst offender, executed thousands, while in Iran citizens are routinely killed for adultery, or even homosexuality.

Why does the death sentence remain in some nations? There are many reasons: the totalitarian regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia are enforcing strict religious laws, while in some democracies, Japan and some American states, for example, polls suggest that capital punishment has broad popular support. Other nations reserve the ultimate penalty for crimes they regard as a particular problem – such as drug dealing in Indonesia.

Moral capital?

In a world where most countries have abolished the death penalty, should those that retain it be condemned as barbaric? No, some say: where it is imposed, the reasons behind the capital punishment are complex, and entwined with a nation’s particular culture and politics. We should not judge the morality of countries we do not understand.

No, others respond: entire nations should not be denied rights that the rest of the world take for granted. If it is wrong for governments to put their citizens to death, it is wrong everywhere: not just in countries that are similar to our own.

You Decide

  1. Will the death penalty ever be outlawed in all the world’s nations?
  2. Should countries that have outlawed the death penalty put pressure on other nations to adopt similar policies, or should they accept the different values of other countries?


  1. Create an infographic showing which countries still have the death penalty, and which enforce it.
  2. Imagine you are a lawyer representing Lindsay Sandiford. Using your own research, put together a defence which argues she should receive a prison term rather than a death sentence.

Some People Say...

“Break another country’s laws and you should expect to face its punishments.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So I guess the lesson of this is not to smuggle drugs.
Absolutely. Lindsay Sandiford is not alone in her fate: countries with hardline policies against using or trafficking drugs, like Singapore, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, do enforce the death penalty for foreign nationals caught with drugs.
But if I get in trouble abroad, will the UK government help me out?
British nationals can usually get help from the Foreign Office. But exactly what that entails is not clearly defined – Sandiford is suing the FCO for providing ‘grossly inadequate’ support. For those without the money or contacts for a good lawyer, getting out of a dangerous situation in a foreign jurisdiction can be extremely difficult.

Word Watch

Firing squad
Countries that enforce capital punishment may sentence convicts to death by firing squad, lethal injection, hanging, the electric chair or even stoning. In Indonesia, ten marksmen are usually employed for each person due to be shot. Eight guns are loaded with blanks and two with live bullets – making it difficult to know which executioner has actually caused the death of the convicted person.
International and internal pressure
International human rights groups like Amnesty International are vocal advocates for the abolition of the death penalty. They support growing movements for abolition in countries where the death penalty is still practised: increasingly, newspapers in countries like Indonesia and Pakistan are opposing capital punishment.
On appeal
Lindsay Sandiford will now be able to pursue several avenues of appeal, in an attempt to reduce her sentence to a prison term. After exhausting all legal avenues to change her sentence, she will be able to plead for the Indonesian president to reduce her sentence. So there is a real possibility Sandiford will not actually be executed, although the process of appeal could take years.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.