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'They Were Both Very Anti-Drugs': We Spoke to an Ex-Cell Mate of the 'Bali Nine' Smugglers on Death Row

Two Australian drug smugglers condemned to death in Indonesia lost what is said to be their final legal challenge on Monday. A former cell mate told VICE News what he thinks this says about justice in the country.
April 7, 2015, 11:20am
Photo by Firdia Lisnawati/AP

Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, two Australian drug smugglers on death row in Indonesia, have become a cause célèbre or time wasters making a mockery of the country's law, depending on who is talking about them. On Monday, the courts rejected their challenge against President Joko Widodo, and according to Indonesia's attorney general all their legal avenues are now closed.

Governments, activists, and Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi have appealed to the Indonesian authorities on behalf on the men. Now a former cell mate of Sukumaran and Chan has spoken to VICE News about the case.

Cahya Xander, an anti-capital punishment campaigner in Bali, told VICE News: "In Javanese society smuggling drugs is now seen as the most grave crime, more and more so it is now seen as worse than terrorism, murder, or rape.

Xander continued: "Most Indonesians aren't educated about narcotics. They accept that it's the work of the devil and that narcotics smugglers are inherently bad people."

Xander was sentenced to six months in prison for marijuana possession when he was 17 years old and was sent to the same Balinese prison, Kerobokan, as Sukumaran and Chan. He said Chan looked after him and they eventually became his cell mates.

"When I first saw him I thought, 'I'll never get past that guy,'" said Xander who described how with his large physique and tattoos Chan looked like a "gangster."

"But he avoided conflict," said Xander, who moved into the foreigners block with Chan to get away from gang violence in the domestic Indonesian section. "They were also both very anti-drugs; drugs were a rampant problem in the prisons and neither Myuran or Andrew did any drugs. I was his cell mate, I know that. Andrew didn't even smoke. He just concentrated on his theology course, which he was studying at the time."

Allegedly the organizers of the so-called "Bali Nine" drug smuggling ring, Sukumaran and Chan were sentenced to death in 2006 for their part in a plan to traffic 18.3 pounds (8.3 kg) of heroin to Australia. Their executions have been delayed numerous times, and the men have lived in constant hope of a reprieve. When Indonesia ceased executions between 2008 and 2013 there was cautious optimism they would not be killed.

Yet Widodo's election in October 2014 changed their fortunes dramatically. Jokowi, as the president is known locally, has pushed for all drug criminals on death row to face execution as soon as possible as part of a national campaign against narcotics. On March 3, Sukumaran and Chan were transferred to the maximum-security prison island of Nusa Kambagan, where Indonesia conducts executions by firing squad. Now that they are there the pair can be killed at 72 hours notice, but not before all legal appeals are exhausted.

"There will be no amnesty for drug dealers," Widodo said in a January interview with CNN. "In one year, it's 18,000 people who die because of narcotics. We are not going to compromise for drug dealers."

Related: Black Sabbath guitarist pleads with Indonesia to have mercy on Australian drug smugglers. Read more here.

Indeed, Widodo granted clemency to a murderer in March, while maintaining that no lenience will be granted to drug criminals regardless of whether they have shown they have reformed during their time in prison.

When Xander was released in 2009, he said Chan made him promise to stay away from drugs and to never find himself back inside Kerobokan. Xander has remained friends with both Chan and Sukumaran ever since, regularly visiting them in prison, and setting up an NGO — Youth Against the Death Penalty — to educate young Indonesians about capital punishment.

"The last time I saw Andrew was right before he was transferred to Nusa Kambagan, everyone was in deadened spirits, except Andrew," he said. "He was always laughing and smiling and keeping everyone together."

After six years of study, Chan became a licensed pastor earlier this year, while Sukumaran started an artists' studio inside Kerobokan as a rehabilitation tool for other inmates. Since taking up painting, Sukumaran has exhibited his work around the world.

On one side of the latest courtroom battle that has played out over the last two weeks were Chan and Sukumaran's lawyers, who argued the president couldn't apply a blanket rule to withhold presidential clemency from drug criminals. On the other side, the president's lawyers argued the judiciary has no right to rule on when and how Widodo chooses to grant clemency. The court of administrative appeals ruled on Monday against Sukumaran and Chan, rejecting their case.

Chan's and Sukumaran's appeal has begun. This time it seems the President is represented by four lawyers. — George Roberts (@George_Roberts)March 19, 2015

"It was an unusual legal effort, so what has been decided by the State Administration Court was a right [decision]," said Indonesian Attorney General Muhammad Prasetyo on Monday. "This, I feel… is proof that they intend to buy time only, by playing with our law," Prasetyo added. "I think this is enough, I am saying this is enough — the legal process has been done."

Lawyers and advocates for the pair saying they are not "playing" with the law by fighting for their legal right to have access to clemency. "In 2007 there was a court ruling that every death row inmate is actually entitled to a case review after 10 years in prison," Xander told VICE News. "President Jokowi has neglected this."

Related: Australian police responsible for imminent executions of two Australians on Indonesian death row, says lawyer. Read more here.

"It's clear the Indonesian authorities haven't grappled with the question of the exceptional rehabilitation," Michael O'Connell, a lawyer for the pair told ABC on Tuesday. "The Indonesian constitutional court declared that if a person on death row could demonstrate over a period of 10 years that they had engaged in praiseworthy conduct, as they call it, then they should be entitled to have their sentences commuted to either life or 20 years."

Tim Lindsey, an expert in Indonesian law at the University of Melbourne, told Fairfax on Tuesday that the constitutional case would not alter Chan and Sukumaran's fate. "It's absolutely established without any question [that] Constitutional Court decisions usually only apply forward in time," he said, insisting that the case was not an appeal, but a completely separate legal proceeding seeking constitutional clarification.

Sukumaran and Chan's fate could instead rest in the hands of politicians. Intense lobbying from the Australian government and an alliance of NGOs have targeted Jokowi. The president, a big heavy metal fan, has even received personal requests from members of Black Sabbath and Napalm Death to spare the two. "They could be looking for a way out," Xander said of the Indonesian authorities, who stated that the pair's execution has been dragged out considerably since it was first announced in late January.

"This had to come to surface at some point," he said. "What Andrew and Myuran are going through isn't in vain, it's put Indonesia into the international spotlight for their stance on the death penalty and I don't think the government anticipated that."

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell