For those who have been trying to prevent the execution of Bali Nine duo Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, the unexpected deferral of that execution provides a precious opportunity. It is an opportunity to fundamentally rethink the approach that has been adopted so far and to recalibrate the “message”, the plea for clemency, accordingly.
The emphasis to date has been on the impressive success story of the pair’s rehabilitation within Kerobokan prison, including the assistance they have provided to other inmates. The well-co-ordinated information campaign within Australia has had the effect of convincing most Australians as to the merit of the pitch for mercy. That was important because, before that campaign, there was a degree of scepticism, if not suspicion, on the part of many Australians. And, in order for a convincing pitch to be made to Indonesia, a threshold requirement was always going to be that Australia, as a nation, was fully supportive.
But this matter will not be played out or determined by reference to the Australian court of public opinion. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and those who advise him, will act on the perceived views of the Indonesian public. The notional average Indonesian will take some note of the Sukumaran and Chan human-interest story, but, at the end of the day, it will be outweighed by the inevitable schadenfreude regarding the predicament of any foreigner from a privileged country who finds himself ensnared in the Indonesian criminal justice system. Especially when the government is running hard with populist declarations to the effect that there should be no exceptions, no special treatment.
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An appeal for mercy predicated on the cruelty of the death penalty has been, and was always going to be, ineffective, if not counter-productive.
Guy Rundle noted in his Crikey piece on February 17, 2015 that “the values that undergird the death penalty are the need for social terror, to implant the horror of it, of dying like that, in the collective breast”.
From the point of view of the Indonesian government, the concept of the death penalty as a deterrent is damaged and undermined if foreigners from friendly countries are reprieved. For our Prime Minister to have made motherhood statements about the sanctity of human life while at the same time hinting at repercussions for Indonesia in terms of future aid and other assistance was clueless. The riposte Abbott’s comments received — orang akan terlihat warna sebenarnya (a person’s true colours will be revealed) — was predictable and devastating.
So what is the message that Australians, and in particular the Australian government, should be sending, as broadly and directly as possible, to the Indonesian public? It is that the rationale given by Widodo for not making an exception in relation to Sukumaran and Chan is patently false on the known facts. That rationale is that drug traffickers must be executed because the drug trade is having such a toxic effect on Indonesia that 50 people are dying a day.
Sukumaran and Chan were not involved in trafficking drugs to Indonesians. Bali was just a way station for them. Their eight kilograms of heroin were bound for Perth, and it was going to be Australians who would have been affected by their crime.
By contrast, some foreigners on the Indonesian death-row list have unquestionably been involved in the drug trade in Indonesia. Maximising Sukumaran and Chan’s chances of survival unfortunately requires the metaphorical abandonment of such others, at least for the time being.
The most recent official Australian Federal Police line being run in the media was that all would be revealed in due course, but only after all clemency appeals had been finalised/exhausted. The suggestion seemed to be that formally confirming the obvious (i.e. that the AFP had opted to hand Australian scalps over to their Indonesian law enforcement counterparts) might negatively impact on the clemency process.
It is a bizarre and unacceptable position that must be debunked as soon as possible. The disclosure by the AFP of the information that led to the arrest of the Bali Nine in Indonesia (and to subsequent action taken by Indonesian police in Jakarta) should be the lynchpin of the pleas being made on behalf of Sukumaran and Chan.
It is only by foregrounding the Australian disclosure that we will be able to press home our best point. Namely, that we have sacrificed the opportunity to punish our own criminals in order to assist Indonesia. It is the sole extraordinary or exceptional circumstance capable of persuading Indonesians that Sukumaran and Chan should be spared.