All Australians should feel deeply disturbed by the impending executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The two Australian citizens, convicted in 2006 of attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin out of Bali into Australia, will, barring an improbable eleventh-hour reprieve, be put to death by the Indonesian state at an as yet undetermined time in the coming weeks. Once transferred to a prison island off Java, the men will be dressed in white, bound at the hands and feet, tied to poles alongside one another, and finally sprayed with bullets by a 12-member firing squad. If Chan or Sukumaran do not die immediately, the commander will step forward and shoot them in the head as many times as is necessary to achieve the desired result.
“But what then is capital punishment,” asked Camus in Reflections on the Guillotine (1957), “but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared?” Death administered by the state, even to murderers, was, for Camus, a nonpareil evil, impossible to justify except on the most sordid and spurious of grounds: “All we can conclude from the figures set down at length in statistical tables is this: for centuries crimes other than murder were punished with death, and the supreme punishment, repeated over and over again, did not do away with any of those crimes.” Capital punishment, in other words, may function as an exemplary form of revenge but it does not function as its proponents intend – as an exemplary form of deterrent. It is not justice but barbarism in action.
Indonesia’s newly-elected President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) believes the death penalty to be a proportionate response to the country’s drug problem. Putting aside the fact that the historical record (not to mention firm contemporary evidence from countries such as Malaysia and Singapore) wildly contradicts the idea that punitive measures are an effective deterrent against drug crime, it was revealed recently that Jokowi and his administration have been using crooked data to inflate the extent of drug use and deaths in Indonesia. Capital punishment is a politically charged issue in the country – it is widely supported by public and politicians alike – and it is difficult to argue with those who view Jokowi’s enthusiastic revival of it as a populist pose designed to assuage critics who accuse him of weakness; his chief political adversary is the hardline nationalist and former military general Prabowo Subianto.
Politics – wrote professors Tim Lindsey and Simon Butt recently – turns the administration of the death penalty into a game of chance. While Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was in power, executions were so infrequent that abolition appeared to be on the cards; now, with the political winds blowing in a different direction, Chan and Sukumaran must somehow reconcile themselves to a fate that, only months ago, must have seemed less like an irreversible certainty than a remote potentiality. The two men may already have considered the only options that appear left open to them: to die kneeling, standing or sitting, with or without blindfold.
Every indication is that Chan and Sukumaran have rehabilitated themselves as much as anybody could reasonably be expected to. As stories on the ABC’s Australian Story and Four Corners have demonstrated, both are contrite and have stayed resolutely out of trouble while imprisoned, devoting much of their time to, respectively, spiritual and artistic pursuits. Authorities at Kerobokan jail, where Chan and Sukumaran are being kept, have described the pair as reformed model prisoners. They are, plainly, not monsters, not even – whatever the official narrative says – significant players in the illicit drugs trade.
As they await their transfer to the island on which their lives will end, important questions remain unanswered. The most urgent of which is why the Australian Federal Police, in full knowledge of Indonesian law, allowed the so-called Bali Nine, of which Chan and Sukumaran were members, to be arrested on Balinese soil and not in Australia. While this question continues to be dodged by Australian authorities, other troubling aspects of this case drift in and out of focus. Chief amongst these is Indonesia’s unashamed double standard by which it refuses to brook Australia’s pleas for clemency while, at the same time, aggressively campaigns to have death sentences commuted for its own citizens in countries such as Saudi Arabia.
And then there is the now infamous poll, ordered by triple j in January, which was used by Indonesian authorities to argue that more than half of the Australian population supported the death penalty for Chan and Sukumaran. It is difficult to know what to make of the poll’s result – whether it reflects the attitude of Australians towards the sovereignty of other countries more than towards the death penalty itself, or whether, as the artist Ben Quilty and others have contended, it points towards a latent racism (what if Chan and Sukumaran were white?). But there is no question triple j made an error of judgment at what is a critical time for a morally and politically fraught issue.
Finally, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that Chan and Sukumaran will not die alone. Seven other drug offenders may face the firing squad at the same time: Martin Anderson (Ghana), Zainal Abidin (Indonesia), Raheem Agbaje Salami (Nigeria), Rodrigo Gularte (Brazil), Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso (Philippines), Serge Areski Atlaoui (France) and Sylvester Obiekwe (Nigeria). Jakarta’s net of injustice has been cast wide as well as deep (although it is somewhat chastening to recall that the death penalty was not permanently abolished in Australian law until 2010).
In his narrative essay A Hanging (1931), George Orwell famously described seeing a man who was headed for the gallows sidestep a puddle of water in order not to get his feet wet: “It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide… He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone—one mind less, one world less.”
Andrew Chan is 31 years old, Myuran Sukumaran 33. Today in Jakarta, Australian diplomats are meeting with Indonesian officials who will outline the procedure for the two men’s execution.