Time to speak up for Australians on Indonesia’s death row

In Indonesia, two Australian men stand to be shot to death by firing squad. They are among as many as 64 convicted drug smugglers in the country facing execution and new president Joko Widodo has pledged never to grant a pardon. Australians should be appalled.

January 6, 2015 – 12:15AM | Daniel Flitton – Senior Correspondent

In Indonesia, two Australian men stand to be shot to death by firing squad. They are among as many as 64 convicted drug smugglers in the country facing execution and new president Joko Widodo has pledged never to grant a pardon. Australians should be appalled.

Australians should equally condemn the law in Malaysia that would hang a 51-year-old Sydney grandmother by a rope until dead. She is accused of attempting to carry 1.5 kilograms of the drug ice through Kuala Lumpur airport last month.

And Australians should tell Pakistan, without equivocation, that even the hideous slaughter of 132 children by local Taliban in a Peshawar school a few weeks ago does not justify a return of the death penalty, where 500 convicts convicted of “terrorism” may go to the gallows.

That’s the thing about a matter of principle; a wrong is a wrong even if done to a person without principle, and capital punishment is wrong. Institutions are fallible, and with the death penalty, mistakes cannot be undone.

Whether in Saudi Arabia for the crime of sorcery or the US for bombing the Boston marathon, Australia should always oppose this punishment.

But the argument becomes much weaker when applied selectively, with a judgement dependent on someone’s nationality. The problem for Australia in the diplomatic appeal to Indonesia to spare the life of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan – two of the Bali Nine condemned to death – is successive governments have not been consistent making the case against the death penalty.

John Howard acknowledged he could be accused of a “double standard” when Indonesia executed the terrorists who orchestrated the 2002 Bali bombings. “I cannot find it in my heart to publicly ask the Indonesian government to spare the lives of the people who murdered 88 Australians,” Howard admitted when the bombers went before the firing squad – a position echoed by his then Labor opponent, Simon Crean.

“The fact is the crime was committed on Indonesian soil,” Crean argued, “and the Indonesian courts have handed down the death penalty. I won’t be seeking to interfere in that decision.”

One Labor backbencher warned at the time such words would would be “thrown back in our faces” when an Australian wound up on death row. To plead for clemency for Australians while being indifferent to the plight of non-citizens is at best hypocrisy.

Sure enough, all the moral pressure Australia could mount on Singapore in 2005 did not spare the life of Nguyen Tuong Van. A local hangman delivered a grotesque warning beforehand, that the condemned could “struggle like chickens” without the proper technique.

Joko has not been as cruel with words, but he has branded the death penalty as “shock therapy” for would-be drug traffickers. He had cleared the way to execute five prisoners on death row before New Year, but quietly allowed that deadline to pass with the eyes of the world on the AirAsia plane crash. Another 20 are apparently set to die this year.

Sukumaran and Chan have exhausted all appeals, and the arbitrary timing of their execution – this month, this year, or the next, with 72 hours all that is formally required by way of notice – is symptomatic of the cruel torture inherent to this system.

It is possible the legal wrangling will go on, the search for last-minute technicalities in a bid to win a reprieve. But this only highlights the problems of Indonesia’s judicial system. Locals sometimes complain about the “mafia peradilan”, or the justice mafia. As the Jakarta-based Human Rights Watch campaigner Andreas Harsono told me, bribery and corruption is rampant in the judiciary, from the district courts to the Supreme Court, involving police officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges.

“It also goes down to the prison where one should pay to be in certain cells … [a] private cell, air conditioned one, to have laptop, to have cell phone,” Harsono explains. “It’s just an irony to have death sentences in a place where you cannot trust the judiciary.”

There are sensitives whenever a country attempts to influence another, cultural and jurisdictional. The prevailing wisdom of officialdom and some country specialists is that quiet advocacy on behalf of Sukumaran and Chan is best, that resorts to “megaphone diplomacy” will only drive Indonesia to assert its sovereign right to make laws.

But the softly-softly approach achieved nothing with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the clemency appeals left untouched on the former president’s desk.

It is time to speak plainly. Australia risks being seen as apathetic about capital punishment in Indonesia unless it vigorously campaigns against it. If this is seen to be interfering, so be it, because the death penalty is wrong, for the condemned Australians or anyone else.

Some Indonesians would undoubtedly resent Australia’s advocacy. But many Indonesians will equally be appalled at the practice of the death penalty. In a country where social media campaigns and politics are fiercely intertwined, this might be just the right moment to spark a debate – before an execution date is set.

Otherwise the only certain outcome is when the firing squad pulls the trigger.

Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent for The Age.

SOURCE www.theage.com.au