Playing Death and Politics

On April 17 2005, nine Australians were arrested in Denpasar (Indonesia) for planning to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin from Bali to Australia. They became known as the Bali 9, and seven received long jail sentences under Indonesia’s harsh anti-drug laws. The two ringleaders, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were sentenced to death. They have exhausted all appeal options, and are set to be executed by firing squad by the end of February. If these death sentences are carried out –and all signs suggest they will– the pair will be the first Australian citizens to be executed in Indonesia.

Australia executed its last criminal in 1967, and capital punishment was removed in all states by 1985. It is officially a country against the death penalty, and as such the government and media have been campaigning hard for clemency for Chan and Sukumaran. It is not the first time Australia has tried to intervene when one of its citizens is on death row (such as Van Tuong Nguyen, who was hanged in Singapore nonetheless in 2005), but in this case the call is particularly strong because the men are said to be reformed. They have done astounding work in the ten years they have been in jail, helping fellow inmates raise money for things like food and medical supplies and treatment, and co-ordinating classes in art, cooking, and computers. They were also responsible for bringing about the first co-ed classes, meaning female inmates had access to activities previously unavailable to them [1]. Chan is training to become a Christian pastor, and Sukumaran has immersed himself in painting.

Some people argue the activists campaigning on their behalf are hypocritical, as they don’t challenge the executions of Indonesian citizens or those of other nationalities. But in a world in which the death penalty is permissible under international law, Indonesia’s sovereignty must be acknowledged. This is not to say Australia (or other nations) cannot protest against the death penalty, and there are steps being taken towards abolishing it globally [2], but it is important to respect the right of other countries to govern themselves. What these countries can do is ask for mercy for their own citizens.

Far more hypocritical, and incredibly alarming, is the Indonesian government’s ambivalence and careless attitude toward the death penalty. President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) has vowed he will show no mercy to drug smugglers and is pushing for executions (last month six people, including five foreigners, were executed for drug crimes). However, at the same time he is going to great lengths to save Indonesian citizens from death row in other countries, including reportedly those arrested for drug-related crimes. The Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi has announced support will be given to 229 Indonesian citizens on death row overseas [3]. There is also a case of the government paying US$1.9 million in blood money to Saudi Arabia to spare a domestic worker from beheading after she was convicted of robbing and murdering her employer’s wife (she claims in self-defence following abuse) [4]. Meanwhile, there are reports Jokowi has rejected drug offenders’ applications for clemency without reading them. As chair of Australia Indonesia Institute Tim Lindsey has pointed out: “It makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that the Jokowi administration’s approach to drugs and death is driven more by populism than principle.” [3] . Jokowi has formerly been labelled a weak leader, and so this issue appears to be a tool to show his conviction.

Some argue Chan and Sukumaran must face the consequences of trying to smuggle a drug responsible for harming countless people in a country where the death sentence is well renowned. Others say everyone deserves a second chance and the death penalty is an abuse of human rights. There are many arguments against capital punishment (the whole debate summed up brilliantly by BBC Ethics [5]): no proof it acts as a deterrent, mistakes are irreversible, the idea of ‘brutalisation’ (more murders, the public baying for blood, the state heavily linked to violence). But in this case, there is more to argue about than the morals and effectiveness of capital punishment.

The systematic and cold-blooded murder of convicted criminals already removed from society is, to me, a chilling idea. But what chills me more is the idea that rather than examining individual cases, judging ‘just’ punishment and whether an individual can be rehabilitated, the Indonesian president is on the verge of executing these men in order to appear strong to the majority of Indonesians who support capital punishment for drug crimes. These are people’s lives. If you’re going to execute criminals, do it because you believe it is right and they are beyond reform. Not to use them as pawns in the popularity games of politics.



Alice Walker








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