Indonesia's 'Alcatraz' - last stop for murderers, militants and drug dealers

CILACAP, Indonesia (AFP) - Nusakambangan, dubbed Indonesia's "Alcatraz", is known internationally as a grim prison island and execution site. But inside the country, many see it as a proud symbol of the fight against drugs.

Last week the two Australian ringleaders of the so-called "Bali Nine" heroin smuggling group, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were transferred to the island and will soon face the firing squad despite a wave of international criticism.

At home the island is not only a key part of the country's battle against drugs, but some even believe its macabre reputation poses no challenge to a future as a top tourist spot with idyllic beaches.

Nusakambangan highlights the gulf in views between Indonesia, where the death penalty for drug traffickers has solid public support, and some of the countries whose citizens will soon be put to death, in particular neighbouring Australia.

"Nusakambangan is not just a point of pride for the people of Cilacap, but all Indonesians," said gemstone trader Edy, referring to the Javanese port town that is the gateway to the island. "Indonesians think executions are a good way to fight drugs."

Despite his image as a reformist, new President Joko Widodo has made the campaign to execute drug traffickers a key policy, a populist move analysts say is aimed at showing he is a tough leader.

He says Indonesia is facing an "emergency" due to rising drugs use, and has won the backing of key groups such as the Muslim-majority country's two biggest Islamic organisations.

The first executions during his presidency were in January, when six drug convicts, including five foreigners, were put to death - unleashing a diplomatic furore.

While there are dissenting voices, notably from academics and rights groups, and no comprehensive studies have been conducted, the policy has won broad public backing and there has been only muted political opposition.

Moments before legal and diplomatic teams visited the Australians last week, protesters descended on Cilacap port with signs declaring, "Go to hell drug traffickers", and urging foreigners not to interfere in Indonesia's judicial system.

The policy shift signals that Nusakambangan is likely to become the site of regular executions. Despite repeated appeals from Canberra, Chan and Sukumaran were brought there under heavy military escort last week.

They are expected to be put to death in the near future at the same time as drug convicts from France, Brazil, the Philippines, Nigeria and Ghana, although no date has been set.

As the executions draw closer, the convicts' families have been making the short ferry journey from Cilacap to see their loved ones on jungle-clad Nusakambangan, which has served as a penal colony since Indonesia's then Dutch rulers began detaining prisoners there more than a century ago.

Today those colonial jails, long decommissioned, can still be seen by visitors to the island. The modern prisons make up a sprawling complex across the island's interior, seven facilities ranging from maximum security to an "open" prison where inmates work in fields and carve gemstones for jewellery.

Many of the country's most notorious murderers and militants have been sent to Nusakambangan. Imam Samudra, Amrozi and Mukhlas, who carried out the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, were executed there in late 2008.

For those on death row in Indonesia, Nusakambangan is normally the end of the road.

Seventy-two hours before being executed, condemned inmates are taken to an isolation cell where they wait until being led - chained and, if desired, blindfolded - outside the jail to nearby jungle clearings. There, they are tied to a post and shot by a 12-man firing squad.

The local view of Nusakambangan is a million miles from that of a dark, foreboding execution island, however.

It has a budding tourist industry, with boat operators at Cilacap's main beach saying they take up to 100 - mainly Indonesian - visitors each Sunday across the narrow strait to explore the island's white-sand beaches and caves.

Akhmad Edi Susanto, deputy chief of the local district, envisions a day when the island, with its beaches "more beautiful than Bali", can attract the levels of tourism enjoyed by Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, and wants a cable car affording visitors a bird's-eye view.

"I'm very proud because there's no place like it," he said. "The prison can remain a prison, the executions can continue, but the nature must be enjoyed by everyone."