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Cautious Optimism, Measured Dread

Despite all indications to the contrary, anti death penalty advocates believe there is still hope that Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will escape execution in Indonesia.
January 21, 2015, 3:30am

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Photo courtesy of the Mercy Campaign

Anti death penalty advocates believe there is still hope that Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will escape execution in Indonesia. Over the last decade, the two former leaders of the Bali Nine drug smuggling ring have provided a range of educational programs for inmates at Kerokoban Prison, reportedly becoming model citizens in the process. This is where advocates say their hopes lie.

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott spoke out about the positive change in the two men facing the death penalty, as he called on Indonesian president Joko Widodo to show mercy. However, this was after Abbott stated the week before that he would not let the matter jeopardise relations with Indonesia.


There has been little indication of the importance placed on rehabilitation by the Indonesian justice system. Sukumaran's application for clemency was rejected earlier this month, but it's not likely he will be executed soon, as Chan's application has not yet been ruled upon. Under Indonesian law, prisoners who've committed a crime together must be executed together.

If not for this law, it's possible Sukumaran may have met his end last Sunday morning, when Indonesian authorities executed six people on drug charges. Five of the prisoners executed were from Brazil, the Netherlands, Vietnam, Malawi and Nigeria. These killings caused a political backlash as the Netherlands and Brazil withdrew their ambassadors.

When questioned on Australia's efforts to save Chan and Sukumaran, foreign minister Julie Bishop told Sky News that the Australian government has raised the issue over 50 times with Indonesian counterparts and explained it was necessary to keep consular staff in the country to continue making representations.

The Australian government has never convinced a regional government to grant clemency to a citizen facing execution on drug charges

It was a different case ten years ago when in April 2005, the two men were convicted as the ring leaders of the Bali Nine, a group of Australian citizens caught trying to smuggle more than 8 kilograms of heroin out of Indonesia. It came to light years after the arrests that the Australian Federal Police had actually tipped off the Indonesian authorities about the group, who were already under AFP investigation. The AFP passed on their knowledge of the group's plan for a drug run with full knowledge the death penalty would likely eventuate.

Either way, the Australian government has never convinced a regional government to grant clemency to a citizen facing execution on drug charges, as in the case of Van Nguyen, who was hanged by authorities in Singapore in 2005.


But despite all of this, president of Reprieve Matthew Goldberg, said his organisation is still hopeful that Chan's appeal will be successful, as there's a capacity within Indonesian law for the president to exercise discretion and grant clemency. He stresses the campaign is not about releasing these men from jail – they'll serve a life sentence – it's about saving their lives.

"The reason why I say there's still optimism is both Myuran and Andrew have strong applications for clemency because they've spent years pursuing educational projects, and their own reform and rehabilitation. Anyone who's considered their case couldn't deny that they've changed their lives around," Goldberg told VICE.

In September last year, Goldberg visited the pair in Kerobokan prison and found Sukumaran has become an accomplished painter, who's about to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He's been mentored by Australian artist, Ben Quilty and also runs art classes at the prison. Along with Chan, he's instituted a computer course for other inmates and Chan himself is about to begin teaching hospitality.

Widodo announced last year that he wants all 64 drug smugglers on death row executed. But Goldberg still believes there's a chance further executions will not take place. Last Sunday's executions and a similar case in 2013 are the only executions that have occurred in the country since 2008. "When you think about Indonesia… perhaps people think that executions are happening at a regular pace, but it's not particularly common," he said.

Kerokoban Prison. Photo by Flickr user Anton Muhajir

Dr Vannessa Hearman, acting head of the Department of Indonesian Studies at Sydney University, is doubtful the executions will not take place as once the appeal for clemency has been rejected, as is the case with Sukumaran, it is unusual to go back and review it. However, with an announcement by Indonesian Attorney General's spokesperson Tony Spontana this morning she believes the matter is possibly not yet closed. "Spontana said there is another avenue to appeal again," she said. "I've never heard of this before, so I think that this could be evidence that the pressure is working on the Indonesian government, pressure from the Australian public and the Australian government as well."

Hearman said that although there has been a lot of debate in Indonesia about abolishing the death penalty over the last couple of years, there is also a moral panic about drugs in the society. She explains that authorities and medical professionals have not looked into harm minimisation as an approach but instead have taken up a strict security approach focused on restricting demand.


"At the moment Widodo thinks Indonesia is in the middle of an emergency, in the middle of a crisis around drugs," Herman said.

Diana Sayed, crisis response coordinator for Amnesty International, said it has been proven that the death penalty does not work as a deterrent. "Following the Bali Nine, offenders have been caught and there's been numerous arrests on the same related crimes," she explained.

The Widodo administration took office in July last year, promising to make human rights a priority. Sayed said the executions "fly in the face of those commitments" and Amnesty is calling for a halt to plans for further use of the death penalty.

"This is a country that just a few years ago had taken positive steps to move away from the death penalty and the fact that the authorities are now steering the country in the other direction is really quite concerning," she said.

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