Father Charlie Burrows is often the last man people on Indonesia's death row ever speak to. The 72-year-old Irish Catholic priest works in Cilacap near the notorious Prison Island that hosts the country's regular executions. He was there when Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, along with six other inmates, were shot by a firing squad last month.
Since 2007, Burrows has spent his days speaking prisoners in the lead-up to their executions, an experience that has led to his dedicating his life to abolishing the death penalty. I recently spoke to him about what it's like to be at an execution and how it has impacted on his own faith.
VICE: When did you first become involved with the prison?
Father Charlie Burrows: Twelve years ago, from the start. There were a lot of foreigners and they needed people who spoke English. Shortly after I started they executed two Nigerians. I was with one of them for weeks beforehand. I was with him, and his family, his wife, and his little kid. I was there at the execution. When they shot them it took them about seven or eight minutes to die. They were moaning in pain.
A lady there could I see I was not happy with the death penalty. She got me connected as a factual witness when the Bali Bombers made an application to the Indonesian Constitutional Court to say death by firing squad is torture. That's how I got involved in doing away with the death penalty.
What is the process for you on the night of an execution?
You make a deal with the prosecutors, if you sign their documents they'll let you see the people beforehand and be with them right before it happens. I accompany them from their cell to the car, and then later to the execution site. I just talk and listen to them for an hour or so. The guards are all very upset, and the prisoners thank the guards.
Then the prisoners are taken to the gates of the prison where they're handed over to the police. The police take off the handcuffs and tie them with that white stuff you see on television. One of the harrowing things is they put the bloody chains on their legs.
Once they put them on the cross, I get three or four minutes with them. Then the guards tell me to move away.
You really are there right to the end.
With the latest executions [that included Chan and Sukumaran] they wouldn't let us see because I had been a factual witness. They didn't want me to see the actual execution in case it took a while for them to die.
Who else is there?
There were two Salvation Army ministers, two Catholic priests, two Protestant Ministers, and two Islamic priests. Mary Jane [Veloso] got off so she wasn't there. There was a cross for her but she wasn't on it. We sang a few hymns. We were trying to sing together. And then shots went off.
They take the bodies to a makeshift morgue and we go back to the port to be with the families.
Have you seen people's attitudes towards the death penalty change over time?
There has been an evolution. This time so many people were against the death penalty and could empathize with the families. Even though some would say, "Oh, they're drug addicts, shoot them all," most people are compassionate. People ring me all the time asking what they can do and we work together. I'm very happy with the response of so many people.
Has spending time with people in their final moments taught you much about human nature?
People are the same. There are no bad people in this world. There are just people making mistakes. We were friends with them. We tried to listen to them. People use the word "go" to heaven, but I don't believe they go anywhere. Their spirit is released from place and time. The big thing is the people left behind, getting them through their grief process.
Anybody can make a mistake—we're all sinners. I'm a strong believer that there are only sinners in this world, that's it. None of us are perfect.
You hear, "Oh but they all died happy," that's bullshit. Everybody is angry, they don't agree with being executed. That's the reality. But they try to be strong for the families. It's just wrong, it's a big mistake, it shouldn't happen.
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How have these experiences impacted your own faith?
I have times when I can't talk, when emotions take over. I'm not worried about that. I don't usually cry but I get choked up when I see people are suffering. But that's all part of the brief as far as I'm concerned.
I'm not worried about dying, I never was. We just move to another dimension. I'm very happy to be making this world a better place. I believe we should forget about going to heaven, just start working on this world.
But this must take an emotional toll on you.
Forget about me—don't be interested in me. Be interested in them, and more so for the family. Everybody is trying to be strong in order to lessen the suffering of the person being executed. But at some stage the family can't put on a good face anymore. The whole reality comes in and emotions take over.
To understand and fight the death penalty, the more experiences I have with it the better.
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