The plight and prison activities of the 'Bali Nine' continue to fascinate the Australian media.
Sunday's papers carried the headline 'From drug courier to devoted husband, a jailhouse fairytale', featuring a photo of Australian Martin Stephens and his Indonesian wife Christine in the Kerobokan prison. The subtitle read, 'Several of the Bali Nine have found true love and redemption in jail.'
I and fellow Australian Jesuit Michael Kelly tried to gain access to the jail on Sunday but the crowds were too great. The jail is presently running at more than double capacity with 1000 prisoners, many of them foreign nationals doing time for drug offences.
On the Saturday, we had attended the opening of the Made Budhiana and Donald Friend art galleries at the Villa Pandan Harum just out of Ubud, and owned by Darwin lawyer Colin McDonald QC. McDonald had once served on the Australia-Indonesia Institute.
The opening was performed by two respected elders, Nyoman Gunarsa, the maestro of the Balinese artist community, and Richard Woolcott, a once long time ambassador to Indonesia during the troubled days of the invasion of East Timor, and our last representative on the UN Security Council.
McDonald recalled that Ali Alitas had described the Australia-Indonesia relationship as a rope with many strands — the strands of art and culture being the most resilient.
In the audience were Australian lawyers who have supported members of the Bali Nine these past seven years and lawyers acting for Indonesian minors still held in long term detention in Australia without charge, as well as Lee Rush, the father of Scott Rush whose death sentence was recently commuted to life imprisonment.
Woolcott reminded the audience that there was no relationship more important to Australia than that with Indonesia. He acknowledged that among tensions and differences, there were always personal relationships strengthened and nurtured by art and culture.
McDonald expressed the hope that the galleries, featuring the work of a deceased Australian artist who drew great inspiration from Balinese traditions and of a contemporary Balinese artist who had painted Australian scenes including the makeshift interiors of northern Australian refugee camps, would 'make a gentle but sincere statement about the virtues of cultural engagement, appreciation and respect for the other, tolerance and the enjoyment of the exotic, and the enduring importance of art aesthetics and the art instinct across cultures'.
McDonald, long impressed by Balinese myths and morality, has been collecting the works of these two artists since 1984.
Budhiana told the crowd, 'A good collector is the one who has good art collections and appreciates them well. A good art collector always visits artists, discusses art with them, shares their knowledge about art, and if necessary, he will build a convenient place where he can showcase his great art collections.' He thanked Colin for supporting him with visits to Darwin and Kakadu for exhibitions.
Though the jail is usually closed to visitors on a Monday, McDonald, Rush and the two Aussie priests were able to ride on the coat tails of a remarkable group of women known as the Bali International Women's Association. Many of their members are Australian. Their immediate past president is the charismatic Indonesian Melly St Ange who also markets herself as a travel consultant specialist and a wedding organiser. She opens Indonesian doors very readily.
The Australian women in her troupe came first to Bali with concerns for the Bali Nine. But wanting to avoid 'social jealousy' in the jail, they now work to assist all the prisoners in this overstretched facility.
On Monday, we joined eight of them as they were led by St Ange straight into the office of the jail governor, Pak Siswanto, a Javanese Christian. They solicit donations for basic requirements such as water tanks and septic tanks. They bring fresh fruit, soap and toothpaste for the inmates. This day they also brought some banana trees for planting in the jail grounds.
Siswanto welcomed everyone, calling St Ange 'Aunty' and offering reflections on Matthew 25: that we are all commissioned to give bread to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and to visit those in prison. He told a Javanese story about the banana tree. It does not die without first bearing fruit. He urged the women to bear good fruit in his jail so that life in these wretched, tropical and overcrowded conditions might be improved for all.
We then visited many blocks in the jail, the priests being invited to lead prayers for the Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Some Catholics came seeking the sacraments and personal blessings.
The governor thanked us for our visit. On leaving the jail, St Ange was delighted that a truck had just arrived with the next shipment of water tanks. Lawyers discussed the prospects of death sentences being commuted to life, and life sentences being reduced to fixed terms which might earn parole before young men grow old.
There is much about the Australian legal and political system which I cherish. But there are not too many Australian prison governors with this rapport for foreign visitors. There would be justifiable Australian outrage if any Australian minors were held for six to nine months in detention without charge on suspicion of illegal fishing or of being enslaved on an asylum boat.
I return to Australia convinced that we can learn from each other. Justice and compassion are not an Australian preserve.
Frank Brennan is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. Those wanting to donate to the projects of the Bali International Women's Association should contact Melly St Ange.
Photos (from top): Richard Woolcott and Nyoman Gunarsa; Richard Woolcott, Colin McDonald and Lee Rush at the opening of the galleries; Frank Brennan, Michael Kelly, Lee Rush, Melly St Ange and Paula from the Bali International Women's Association outside the Kerobokan prison.