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Accommodating Indonesia's capital punishment barbarism


Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan

Bali Nine drug runners Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan are on track to be executed by firing squad during the first half of this year. A letter rejecting Sukumaran’s presidential clemency bid was hand-delivered to Bali's Kerobokan prison by an Indonesian government official earlier this month. A similar outcome is expected for Chan before a date is set for the pair to be executed together.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott stressed that Australia would make ‘the strongest possible representations’ on behalf of Sukumaran. ‘Australia opposes the death penalty. We oppose the death penalty for Australians at home and abroad’.

Abbott deserves praise for his focus on our abhorrence of the death penalty, and his avoidance of the argument that they are model prisoners who have turned their lives around, even though the evident truth of that provides a solid basis to urge the granting of presidential appeals for clemency. Such appeals make the decision to take or spare human life an act of political will, and going down this track is an uncomfortable compromise for those who believe that the death penalty is wrong per se. As a value, human life becomes relative to President Widodo’s otherwise commendable political will to combat drug addiction. It is no longer absolute.

It should be stressed that any acceptance of the death penalty as an option, is incompatible with upholding human life as an absolute value. The image of Indonesia as a mature and civilised nation is diminished, and the actions of an Indonesian state firing squad are different to those of Islamic State executioners only by degree. They signal an Indonesia turning back to a barbaric past evidenced in atrocities in East Timor (with Australian Government acquiescence), and the disregard for human life that accompanied Sukarno’s demise as depicted in the 2012 film The Act of Killing, again without opposition from Australia.

Where Abbott does not do himself any credit is in his qualification that Australia’s ’strongest possible representations’ on Sukumaran’s behalf will be subject to the need to avoid jeopardising Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. Not only does it suggest that Australia can accommodate Indonesian state barbarism (as it did under Whitlam). It is also an unequivocal declaration that opposing the death penalty is less important than the effort to stop asylum seeker boats from reaching Australian waters. We can recall the Abbott Government’s insistence in its early days in office that the boats must be stopped even if it upsets Indonesia. Indonesia was duly upset, but relations bounced back, as they always do. There is no reason to fear our long term good relations with Indonesia could not withstand strong and unqualified opposition to the death penalty. 

Further, we need to put the Australian Government’s accommodation of Indonesia in the context of its support for America’s effort to disable Islamic State and its barbarous practices. Human life as an absolute is a core value we are seeking to uphold on behalf of many innocent populations in the Middle East. If we act on our belief that killing human beings is not OK in these distant lands, why can’t we take a more decisive stand against the taking of human life on our doorstep?  

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Thanks to mercycampaign.org for Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan image.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Sukumaran, Bali Nine, Chan, Tony Abbott, Widodo, Indonesia, death penalty, Islamic State



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Existing comments

It was disheartening to hear that Myuran Sukumaran's final appeal for clemency had been rejected by the Indonesian government and it is appropriate for the Australian government, in the strongest possible terms, to express our opposition to the death penalty. Our relationship with Indonesia is important and we need to always keep the channels of communication open and respectful and a good relationship is never threatened by honesty. If our appeals fail at the present time though, we must maintain our relationship and keep voicing our opinion.

Pam | 18 January 2015  

State sanctioned homicide to sate a crime is unjustified in all circumstances. It us barbaric and uncivilused. Why our PM is being weak-kneed about this issue is puzzling. If Australia's relationship with Indonesia was mature and strong as we are led to believe, any disagreement with Indonesia on a social issue would surely lead to a stronger relationship. The Dutch told the Indonesians that the execution if a Dutch national would or could affect bilateral relations. Why is the Australian Govt beating around the bush and, by its relative silence, acquiescing in Indonesia's inhumane policies?

Daryl Jordan | 18 January 2015  

Where does justice rest in the fate of these two young men? Michael Mullin's emotive link of Indonesia's deplorable history in Timor Leste, and the summary execution of innocents by the Islamic State does not help in presenting an argument against capital punishment. If the word "barbarism" is used in the context of its original meaning of 'foreign', then it is valid. However Mullins uses it with a different meaning- the actual meaning is unclear. The drug runners were prepared to make profit out of the destruction of other people. They have been proven guilty in a court of law. The question should be on what is a just punishment? Are there grounds for mercy? How does Indonesia protect itself from individuals who choose to bring destruction to others for financial profit? As a principle, I am opposed to capital punishment. Everyone should be offered hope and mercy. Perhaps as a nation we should be exploring with Indonesia on how to provide options to capital punishment rather than labeling them 'barbaric' for taking a pathway which in Australia was last used in 1967, removed from state law by 1985 and only legislatively forbidden across all jurisdictions in 2010.

Kevin | 19 January 2015  

It should never be forgotten that these men are facing death by firing squad rather than a lengthy Australian prison sentence, purely because of the actions of our Federal Police. They were caught in Indonesia and not at Sydney Airport because of the warning given by Australian officials. This should mean greater diplomatic efforts on the Prime Minister's part than his lily livered qualified statement.

Joanna Mendelssohn | 19 January 2015  

Can you explain what our government should do, Michael? Places like Indonesia do not have the same perception of the value and sanctity of human life that few remaining pockets of Western Christian society still have. The death penalty is justice in their society unlike the death penalty we impose in this country through the Law and governmental funding without any justice on 100,000 defenceless human beings in a mother's womb. A bit hypocritical to decry Indonesia's death penalty in the face of the societal silence of this country on the barbarism of abortion..

john frawley | 19 January 2015  

I agree with Michael Mullins but the death penalty is also barbaric in the USA.

Anna | 19 January 2015  

Agree with commenter Kevin: most of us surely remember the last execution in Australia, and would not recall Australia at the time as barbaric. Recalling that, we should be a little more careful with language - Indonesia is not a barbaric country.

Russell | 19 January 2015  

40 to 50 young Indonesians are killed each day by drugs. President Joko Widodo has declared this a state of emergency and in need of “shock therapy.” Yet Michael Mullins self-righteously likens Indonesia’s solution of the death penalty to the Islamic State executioners who wantonly murder the innocent, including children. In reality, a much closer analogy to Islamic State killings would be Australia’s legalised killings rather than Indonesia’s. The estimated 50 million abortions worldwide each year include thousands of babies who survive abortions, but who are simply left to cry for their mothers until they die because pro-abortion organizations object to medical treatment being given to these babies. For example, in Victoria the 2007 government figures showed that many of the 52 babies who survived late-term abortions had simply been put on a shelf and left to die. (The Age, October 7 2010). That’s the result of organizations like Emily’s List founded by Julia Gillard and Joan Kirner. In the USA attempts to protect survivors of abortion was voted against four times by Obama in the Illinois legislature, yet 54 % of Catholics voted for Obama. A fair comment might be that most people today, including Catholics, are simply amoral.

Ross Howard | 20 January 2015  

We in Australia (and I) agree the death penalty is wrong,but we must be aware of cultural imperialism. Most countries with a Christian background and culture deplore judicial executions, but nearly all countries with a Muslim, Buddhist/Taoist and Hindu tradition believe otherwise. Could we be mistaken?

John Thompson | 28 January 2015  

How about a deal, in which Indonesia stays carrying out the executions so long as no Australian ever again breaches Indonesia's drug-trafficking laws?

That way, Indonesian sovereignty - its right to set its laws as it sees fit - is acknowledged by Australia, and Sukumaran and Chan's lives are only forfeited if another Australian chooses to so insult Indonesia.

David Arthur | 07 February 2015  

It's quite obvious that the Indonesian's don 't value human life in the way that Western societies do. The very thought of what these men are about to face is horrific and nothing but barbaric in this day and age. It is nothing more than State sanctioned homicide. The Abbott Government have shown their opposition to these executions, but what has been said and done is too little too late. It's unfortunate that our Government doesn't show it's opposition to Indonesia's barbaric and inhumane practices by cutting our ties with Indonesia.

Sean | 04 March 2015  

A government is elected to look after the running of a country. They are to provide service not dictate. How dare a government murder human beings. Indonesia is on my never to visit list because they are a primitive and barbaric, immature nation.

Hugh | 24 April 2015  

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