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Black Sabbath's Guitarist Wants Indonesia to Spare Australians on Death Row

Tony Iommi has written a letter to Indonesian president and metalhead Joko Widodo asking for two Australian citizens to be removed from death row.

Photo by Adam Bielawski via Wikicommons.

Early in the morning on Wednesday, March 4, Australian officials delivered a letter to Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo written by Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi. In the note, Iommi pleads for the lives of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, two Australian citizens slated for an imminent execution alongside eight others in Indonesia for drug smuggling.

"The Indonesian prison system has had great success in transforming Andrew and Myuran," reads the letter, in which Iommi includes his contact information and acknowledges the threat of drugs and the need to protect Indonesia, but urges clemency.

"I appeal to you, as a forgiving man, to take note of their transformation. They are now reformed men who are making a positive difference in the lives of their fellow prisoners. That they have been transformed so much is a real credit to the Indonesian authorities. For this reason, I would ask that you stop the execution of Andrew and Myuran."

Iommi was convinced to intervene by Jon Dee of Australia's DoSomething charity, with which he has worked for 25 years. The pair apparently hoped they could sway Jokowi, a known fan of heavy metal, by appealing to his personal tastes. But given that previous overtures by world leaders, allies, and even other notorious rockers have failed, it seems like the letter will be for naught.

In fact, around the same time the letter arrived, Chan and Sukumaran were being transferred from Kerobokan Prison (their home for much of the last decade after they were arrested in 2005 for masterminding a heroin smuggling ring from Indonesia to Australia) to Nusakambangan Island to await a firing squad. No one is sure when the executions will occur, but the prisoners will be given 72 hours' notice, then isolated for 12 hours with optional visits by a spiritual advisor, before being taken into the woods, tied to a post, and shot in the heart by twelve guards simultaneously (then shot in the head by the squad leader if they survive the initial volley).

Although Chan and Sukumaran are not the only foreigners slated for execution (seven of the eight others to be executed along with them are non-Indonesians from Brazil, France, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Philippines), most protest has been focused on these two individuals thanks to their peculiar circumstances. Of the nine people involved in their smuggling ring, they are the only ones on death row. Yet extensive coverage of their lives by the Australian media indicates that they are exemplary inmates, involved in arts, ministry, and rehabilitation efforts with other prisoners. Even their guards have backed their clemency bids, but all efforts for a reprieve have been brushed aside by Jokowi's regime.

Concerns over the two men's case picked up in late January, when Indonesia executed six foreign nationals on drug charges, issued a blanket rejection on dozens of clemency bids, and scheduled about 20 executions for 2015. The executions scored points with local citizens, most of whom have a very negative perception of drugs and drug crimes. But in a nation that until 2013 had a moratorium on the death penalty, this uncompromising, hardline stance rattled nations around the world.

In the past few weeks, many countries have tried to sway Indonesia against further drug executions—especially of foreign nationals. Brazil and the Netherlands, both of which lost citizens to the January executions, lodged formal complaints and temporarily altered their diplomatic status with Indonesia. And now France and Brazil have both challenged Indonesian representatives about their citizens' inclusions on the latest drug-related execution docket.

But Australia, one of Indonesia's largest and most important neighbors, has been on the forefront of the diplomatic efforts to moderate Jokowi. The Foreign Ministry has postponed trade missions, all six living ex-Prime Ministers have united to urge a stay, and current Prime Minister Tony Abbott has even tried to guilt Jokowi toward a stay, saying it'd be a great way to pay Australia back the $1 billion it invested in relief after the 2004 tsunami. At the popular level, the Indonesian Consulate in Sydney has been hit with protests, and Chan and Sukumaran's family members have made constant visits to Indonesia and heartfelt appeals on local media channels.

Yet Jokowi and his officials insist that, while they are concerned about and monitoring global reactions, they are following due process and Indonesian legal codes, scoring points domestically for refusing to compromise their sovereignty and for standing up to major neighbors. It's pretty consistent with the nation's aggressive foreign policy and inward-focused populist bent (the nation, for instance, has threatened to shoot down illegal Chinese fishing ships in their water despite China's immense power and supremacy in Indonesian security, trade, and diplomatic relations).

"We are not trigger happy," The Guardian quoted Indonesian ambassador to Australia Nadjib Riphat Kesoema as saying in a speech where he cited Indonesia's 1,500 monthly drug-related deaths. "We [carry out these internationally unpopular executions] for a very big reason."

In light of this prior immobility, Iommi's letter seems last-ditch. But it wasn't entirely insane. During his 2014 electoral campaign, Jokowi got mileage out of his self-professed love for Deep Purple, Guns N' Roses, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Lamb of God, Led Zeppelin, Megadeth, Metallica, and Napalm Death. His appearances at concerts (and his joy over a signed Ibanez bass gifted to him by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, then taken away by anti-corruption officials in 2013) and self-avowed devotion to the notions of change advocated in heavy metal lyrics earned him credibility as an anti-establishment every man. He also scored direct support early in his regime from members of Guns N' Roses, Lamb of God, and Megadeth. So it wasn't entirely unreasonable, given his devotion to the genre and all that his credibility owes to mosh pits and high-distortion shredding that Jokowi might at least honestly hear out a musical icon like Iommi.

Yet the president had already ignored pleas from mercy from Mark "Barney" Greenway, the singer of one of his favorite bands, Napalm Death (probably far more personally important a figure to Jokowi than Iommi, despite the latter's overall stature) sent in a January letter.

"As a follower of our band Napalm Death," read Greenway's letter, "you would appreciate that our lyrics and ethos challenge the unbroken cycle of violence in the world, whether it comes from a state or as an individual. If these things are not challenged and ultimately changed, I believe we will never truly move forward as humankind."

If Greenway (much less major world leaders like Tony Abbott) couldn't sway Jokowi, and Chan and Sukumaran are already sitting on the island where they're set to be gunned down, there's probably not much hope that Black Sabbath's involvement will change anything. So we can probably look forward to more ruckus over another inevitable and arguably extremely senseless drug-related execution coming soon. Unless, that is, Iommi has the power to summon forth the intercessory powers of some dark metal god ripped from a Metalocalypse script.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.