The impending execution in Indonesia of two Australian drug couriers — Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan – has focused Australian media attention on the horrors of capital punishment. Their lawyers, families and supporters, particularly artist Ben Quilty, have ensured that the two have been humanised.
Since their arrest, conviction and sentencing in 2006, the protracted process of appeals and legal challenges left the two clinging to the possibility of reprieve. Sukumaran discovered art, while Chan discovered religion — in both cases allowing them to continue living their lives and developing as people, despite being on death row.
However, in early February their appeals ran out. Newly elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo rejected their applications for clemency, having promised to use the firing squad to clear death row of the 64 prisoners — 25 Indonesians and 39 foreigners - convicted of drug smuggling.
By mid-February, they had been told that their transfer to the prison island of Nusa Kambangan would happen within days. Under Indonesian execution protocol, prisoners face the firing squad within 72 hours of transfer. On February 20, it was announced that their execution had been delayed for technical reasons, but they could be transferred to Nusa Kambangan at any time.
The finality of their situation was brought home by the January 18 execution of six drug offenders: one Indonesian and five foreigners (two from Nigeria, and one each from Brazil, Vietnam and the Netherlands). This signalled an increase in the tempo of executions in Indonesia, particularly for drug offences. Four people were executed in 2013 — three Indonesians for murder and a Malawian for drugs — the first executions since 2008. No executions were carried out last year.
Despite the media coverage of the torment of the two Australians, and sympathetic portrayals of their rehabilitation during their decade in jail, the reaction in Australia has been mixed.
Well-attended vigils have been held throughout the country, and politicians from across the political spectrum have called for clemency. Opinion polls suggest that a slight majority of Australians favour their execution. While highly polarised, the debate has been confused.
The two have undoubtedly undergone a genuine rehabilitation, attested to by the governor of Kerobokan jail, where they have been held, opposing their execution and even other prisoners offering to take their place. But it is also true that the Australian media have exaggerated the extent to which the two Australians stand apart from other prisoners in this respect.
While it is probably too late for any appeals to save Sukumaran and Chan, Prime Minister Tony Abbott's typically ham-fisted, belligerent, nationalist demand that Indonesia spare them in gratitude for Australian aid after the 2004 tsunami has only sealed their doom.
In Aceh, which was hardest hit by the Tsunami, local people have collected money to return to Australia. Indonesian politicians have had a field day pointing out that Australia was only one of 56 countries that provided aid and using the upcoming executions to exploit Indonesian nationalist sentiment.
Even without Abbott's stupidity, appeals by Australian politicians lack credibility. Australia's treatment of refugees undermines any ability to appeal for human rights. Furthermore, Australia’s claim that it opposes capital punishment lacks integrity in Indonesia because of Australian demands for the execution of the terrorists convicted of the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings.
At the time, PM Kevin Rudd refused to condemn the terrorists' execution and pointedly waited until after it had taken place before launching an international campaign against capital punishment, drawing criticism from the Australian drug couriers' lawyers.
The nationalist undercurrent in the Australian campaign for the two to be spared has also been reflected in the comparative lack of interest in the non-Australian prisoners sharing their predicament. Scheduled to face the firing squad with the Australians are six other drug offenders – from Indonesia, the Philippines, France, Brazil, Nigeria and Ghana – and three Indonesians convicted of multiple murder accompanied by rape.
Ghanaian Martin Anderson had no legal or consular representation. An unnamed Ghanaian consular official told the February 13 Australian that no Ghanaian official had visited him during his 11 years on death row. “We are still working on it … But when he was arrested in 2004, it could be he may not be from Ghana. It could be he is a person from another country using a false passport,” the official said.
Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte also lacked legal representation at the time of his initial trial, the result of an unscrupulous lawyer and Gularte's severe mental health issues.
“A group of specialists that conducted bi-monthly visits to the prison from July until November last year diagnosed Gularte with paranoid schizophrenia and recommended he be taken to hospital for immediate intensive treatment,” the February 19 Guardian said.
“The specialists described Gularte’s psychological condition as unstable and noted that he had become increasingly withdrawn and delusional … and was 'observed talking to himself, and talking to the water pump'.”
It is illegal under Indonesian and international law for a mentally ill prisoner to be executed. His cousin, Angelita Muxfeldt, told the Guardian that he is refusing treatment for his condition, which he refuses to recognise, and is not worried about his impending execution because a voice told him that the death penalty had been abolished.
Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso, a migrant worker from a poor rural family in the Philippines was convicted only in October 2010. The February 13 Australian said Filipino president Benigno Aquino III avoided mentioning her case “during ... Widodo’s just-concluded state visit to the Philippines, where both leaders agreed to strengthen efforts in the war on drugs”.
The main factor leading to Sukumaran and Chan's unenviable position is Australia's enthusiastic support for the “war on drugs”. Their arrest along with seven other Australian couriers in Bali was the direct result of a tip-off from the Australian Federal Police. The February 8 Herald Sun quoted Monash University law Professor Ronli Sifris as saying then-AFP commissioner Mick Keelty will have “blood on his hands” from their execution.
However, criticism of the AFP's role has focused on them tipping off the Indonesian police instead of waiting for the couriers to land in Sydney. The logic of arresting heroin smugglers has been largely unquestioned. Likewise, pleas for clemency, both from politicians and more sincere advocates for the two, have not questioned that they committed a terrible crime for which they deserve punishment, even if not by death.
Given the consensus that the heroin they were carrying would have killed people and destroyed lives had they succeeded in smuggling it into Australia, the opinion polls suggesting more than half the Australian population supports their execution are unsurprising.
However, it is simply untrue to say that they were putting lives at risk. First, people take heroin because they choose to. Traffickers do not force people to take drugs — their hopes of easy money are based on demand and criminalisation boosting value.
Second, heroin kills fewer people than alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, soft drinks and cars. Most of the deaths related to heroin are actually the result of its criminalisation: for example, unclean needles, contaminated product and unexpected variations in purity. Furthermore, contrary to the stereotype, many people use heroin without their lives spinning out of control. Those who do slip into an uncontrolled addiction are as likely to voluntarily give it up as to die prematurely and destitute.
Drugs, legal and illegal, can be abused as well as used. Heavy drug use can help an individual endure a life that they would otherwise find unbearable. Focusing on law and order responses is a way to avoid looking at the reasons people abuse drugs. This would mean looking at poverty, alienation, boredom, lack of opportunity, trauma and other consequences of capitalist society. Ignoring these things means drug use can be seen as the cause of an individual's problems rather than a symptom.
Drug prohibition has always gone hand-in-hand with racism and social control. The first modern drug prohibition was an 1875 law in San Francisco banning the predominantly Chinese recreation of opium smoking. The consumption of opium in liquid form, popular among white Americans at the time, was not banned. This is mirrored today in the US in the large disparity between punishments for possession of powder cocaine and crack cocaine, the former being popular among white Americans, the latter with minorities.
Drug prohibition has also gone hand-in-hand with corruption. The AFP operation that put Sukumaran and Chan on death row was supposedly part of an operation to catch the “kingpins” of the heroin trade in both Australia and Asia.
However, the February 9 Sydney Morning Herald reported that leads had not been followed up in Indonesia, while police and the media — in Australia and Indonesia — branded Chan and Sukuraman as the “godfather” and “enforcer” when they were merely couriers. The February 11 Sydney Morning Herald said the suspected actual mastermind was living in luxury in Sydney.