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Neither Scott nor Amrozi deserves death

Frank Brennan with Scott Rush's lawyer Colin McDonald outside the Kerobakan PrisonLast Friday, I visited 22-year-old Australian citizen Scott Rush in the Kerobokan prison on the Indonesian island of Bali where he is on death row for being a hapless drug mule. Scott wrote a letter that day to those attending a dinner organised by his parents in Brisbane for Australians Against Capital Punishment:

I'd like to thank you all for all that you are doing for me and the others here at the Death Tower. To all of you who have come to this function I would like to thank you for your caring and showing solidarity by your presence. There is not much that I can say in my circumstances but I can say this: I'm not a celebrity. I have committed a serious crime but I am reforming myself and want to show you that I am capable of complete reform.

Sunday was the sixth anniversary of the Bali bombings which claimed 202 lives, including 88 Australians. Early morning, the Australian Consulate hosted a memorial service for victims' families.

Made Pastika, the Balinese Governor who, as Head of Police, led the successful police investigation into the bombings, spoke at the service recalling how the paradise of Bali had been transformed into a living hell. He espoused the common humanity of all, reminding us that the victims were of all religions and none, of many races, of nationalities near and far.

Made PakistaThe Indonesian choir sang 'Advance Australia Fair' with conviction and the 'Ave Maria' with reverence, as well as the Indonesian anthem and an Indonesian song.

Many wept as they came forward to place flowers at the foot of the wooden cross which had been erected outside the Consulate immediately after the bombing. All felt deep sympathy for the victims and their families. The media-amplified pleas of some of them that the bombers be executed, and quickly, were understandable.

For me, talk of the death penalty evoked the young, frightened face of Scott Rush, as well as the laughing, haughty faces of Amrozi, Mukhlas and Imam Samudra.

I had been troubled by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's response to the gloating Bali bombers at the end of Ramadan a couple of weeks earlier: 'The Bali bombers are cowards and murderers pure and simple, and frankly they can make whatever threats they like,' he said. 'They deserve the justice that we delivered to them.'

I thought the time had come when our national leaders could espouse that justice excludes the death penalty for anyone, no matter what their offence and no matter what their lack of remorse. After all, just before Christmas, the new Rudd Government had voted at the UN for a motion urging retentionist States to 'establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty'.

Mourners carry flowers forward during the Consular memorial serviceWhen Australian citizen Nguyen Tuong Van was facing the death penalty in Singapore in 2005, Kevin Rudd  told Parliament: 'We hold one fundamental human value to be true, and that is the intrinsic dignity of all human life. It is for this reason that we oppose all forms of capital punishment. For our policy to be credible, we must apply it universally. We must be credible in our opposition to capital punishment as a matter of policy wherever it occurs.'

For Scott's sake, and for the sake of the community of nations working towards a moratorium on the death penalty, this should be Australia's position. Withholding none of the sympathy I felt all around me at the consulate last Sunday morning, I think Australia is ready to be led and to lead others down a more humane path, away from the death penalty.

Some of us have been waiting a long time for this lead. I have been waiting since I was 12 years old at a Queensland country boarding school.

It was 3 February 1967. Breakfast started at 7.45 a.m. The din of 300 boys at table was always deafening once the supervising priest declared, 'Deo Gratias'.

For the first and only time in my five years at the school, a handful of senior boys called for a minute's silence at 8.00 a.m. to mark the hanging of Ronald Ryan in Melbourne Jail. As Ryan dropped, you could hear a pin drop in faraway Toowoomba. The recollection still brings goose bumps. This was wrong. It should never happen again. How could a nation do this?

All Australian jurisdictions then abolished the death penalty, and now our government has joined the call for an international moratorium.

Bali Bombing memorial cross at the Australian Consulate in BaliIn 1995, I was working in a Sudanese refugee camp on the Uganda border. At night I would sit in my tent listening to the BBC World Service on the short wave radio. One night I heard the announcement that the South African Constitutional Court had ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.

The lead judgement had been written by the president of the court, Arthur Chaskalson. We had shared the platform at the opening of the Commonwealth Legal Convention in New Zealand a couple of years before. When returning to Australia via Johannesburg I met Arthur and he proudly gave me a copy of the judgement. He had quoted liberally from the dissenting jurisprudence of Justices Brennan and Thurgood Marshall on the US Supreme Court.

I happened to be on my way to Georgetown Law School on a Fulbright where I had the good fortune to meet regularly with my namesake Justice Brennan who, though retired, still came into chambers. Over lunch one day, I gave him my copy of Chaskalson's judgment. Tears welled up in his eyes as he realised that some of his most sterile and consistent dissent writing had borne fruit on the other side of the globe.

There is always point in standing up for principle even when the view expressed is unpopular and a minority view. Like Justices Chaskalson and Brennan, Prime Minister Rudd is well positioned to contribute to the abolition of the death penalty. None of us should ever again have to look into the eyes of Scott Rush returning to the Death Tower.

Frank BrennanThis article is an extract from Father Frank Brennan's remarks delivered at the Ubud Writers' Festival in Bali today. The full text of his address is available here.

Pictured (from top): Frank Brennan with Scott Rush's lawyer, Colin McDonald QC outside Kerobokan Prison; Made Pakista; placing flowers at the consulate; the wooden cross at the consulate.

Topic tags: frank brennan, death penalty, bali bombers, drug mule, scott rush, bali nine



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Existing comments

Thank you for helping us understand that the death penalty is an abhorrent law no matter the crime.

pat | 17 October 2008  

This article makes an excellent case against the death penalty – and Australian politicians’ inconsistent attitude to it.

Frank Brennan refers to the ‘media-amplified calls’ of some of the victims’ families for the death penalty to be applied quickly to the Bali bombers. Those calls are, as he says, understandable.

But I wish that the media would give equal amplification to Brian Deegan, whose son Josh was killed in the bombing but who remains passionately opposed to the death penalty. In a 2003 letter to The Australian he said:

‘The suggestion that Amrosi and his fellow evildoers should face an Indonesian firing squad is unconscionable because that would make the punishment as barbaric as the crime. What the Bali bombers did to my child and to the hundreds of others defies description. But the … attacks do not give anyone the right to repeat such a vile act.’

If a bereaved father can be so clear-eyed, I think our politicians can too.

DNB | 17 October 2008  

I also think that the death penalty should be abolished everywhere. However, how is the imposition of the death penalty an immoral act? When at school 60 years ago, I was taught by Marist Brothers and Marist Priests that the State had the right to impose capital punishment. The church's teaching the same yesterday, today and forever?

I would be grateful if this apparent change in teaching could be explained.

Kevin Luxford | 17 October 2008  

Fr Frank, thank you for your sound and merciful approach to this sad situation. As a Religious Education teacher, this article is a must for the children I teach. It is sad in our world that we must always look for retribution without truly looking at the cause of the problem and everyone it affects.

Phil | 17 October 2008  

Thank you Frank. I would hope that some form of opportunity be presented so that those of us who affirm the principles you uphold can bring to our Government's attention our belief that Australia should consistently oppose death penalties, including for the Bali murderers. If there is such a petition or campaign, perhaps Eureka could bring it to wider notice. Silence is consent and for that reason alone I value Frank Brennan's contribution.

Paul Munro | 17 October 2008  

Amrozi was a patsy. See the documentary Fool Me Twice, free on google video for information on the Bali bombings the mainstream media never covered.

Glen Clancy | 17 October 2008  

When I was a chaplain at Pentridge Gaol in Melbourne in the 60s we used to walked under the great oak beam in D Division designed for hanging. Though capital punishment seemed in aneyance, the ritual of using the condemned cell continued until a death sentence was commuted. Little did we know that Ronald Ryan would suffer its appalling apogee.

I used to meet Ryan in Father Brosnan's office. A gentler soul than later descriptions of him suggested but a vindictive government was determined that an example should be made of him.

And I wonder whether we have learnt the lesson of justice and mercy in the intervening years. God bless Fr Frank for his continuing courage in the face of a popular vindicitivism.

james murray | 17 October 2008  

No one deserves the death penalty. It should be banned worldwide for every person. The Australian Media should be condemned for focusing on "certain" people on death row (Australian citizens) and ignore all others. There are literally thousands of human beings around the world awaiting execution for non violent and minor crimes. What's so special about Australian citizens getting all the publicity?

G. Ashburn | 17 October 2008  

I couldn't agree with you more. Please keep up the good work.

Sara | 17 October 2008  

I fully agree with your article. Thank you for the sentiments expressed.

Alison | 17 October 2008  

I've read the article, I've read the comments. Surely by faith we all know that it's all in the hands of God. I understand nothing else and I don't want to know about people who want retribution, vengeance. What good does that do? Scott said: I'd like to thank you all for all that you are doing for me and the others here at the Death Tower. To all of you who have come to this function I would like to thank you for your caring and showing solidarity by your presence. There is not much that I can say in my circumstances but I can say this: I'm not a celebrity. I have committed a serious crime but I am reforming myself and want to show you that I am capable of complete reform.
I think Scott should be given all the chances possible.

Louise | 17 October 2008  

Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty of murdering her daughter. Overwhelming evidence of predation by dingoes was subsequently discovered, and Chamberlain was released.
In Perth in the 60’s, John Button (not the retired Senator from Victoria) was found guilty of murdering his girlfriend, and remained on death row long after serial killer Eric Cook publicly declared himself to be the killer. Button was eventually released and (I understand) exonerated after a long campaign by investigative journalist Estelle Blackburn.
In Melbourne in the 60’s, there was an election to be won, and Ronald Ryan went to the gallows. Comparisons may be drawn with an execution in Arkansas in the heat of the 2000 US Presidential election campaign.
Scott Ryan and fellows face execution for heroin trafficking; yet 70 years ago, heroin was a useful ingredient in over-the-counter cough medicines.
Regarding Amrozi and fellows, the same considerations must apply; State-sanctioned murder may be State-sanctioned, and that does not stop it being murder.
Capital punishment is not justice. Capital punishment has more in common with human sacrifices such as those of the Aztecs, than it does with any conception of justice.

David Arthur | 17 October 2008  

I broadly agree with Fr Brennan and the comments. However, can we say that state-sanctioned capital punishment is absolutely immoral in all situations? Thomas Aquinas taught that war is wrong in most circumstances but not all. Analogously, cannot a case be made for saying the capital punishment is wrong in most circumstances but not all? For example, if law and order have completely broken down, are not the police justified in shooting, even to kill, if that is the only way in which the lives of innocent citizens can be protected? That would be a form of capital punishment. I haven't checked, but I think that position is endorsed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Fr Brennan reminds us that in the case of Nguyen Tuong Van in 2005, Kevin Rudd stated, "We hold one fundamental human value to be true, and that is the intrinsic dignity of all human life". How hollow those words sound now in the light the recent decision in Victoria to withdraw all legal protection from unborn human beings at all stages of pregnancy and even during birth itself, a tragedy againt which Rudd refused to intervene, even at the pleading of doctors.

Sylvester | 17 October 2008  

As an Australian I strongly wish that we could respect the life all an NO more Death Penatly.

Ruth LYONS/Kapernick | 17 October 2008  

Some are sceptical about the "bali bombers" scenario - with identikit pictures speedily produced. They may have coaxed to get involved in something by "false flag" agents.

in this context, maybe the crimes of Rush (and Corby) could be a media spin operation designed to diffuse the shrill anti-indonesian media voices.

sum of all fears | 17 October 2008  

Again, well done Fr Frank. I support Paul Munro's suggestion and comment re opportunity to bring matter before Kvn Rudd

margaret | 18 October 2008  

Scott Rush is only one of three Australians on death row in Kerobokan Prison. I find it very unkind that you seem to find it impossible to mention them in the same breath as Scott, and especially in the case of priests asking for prayers to be said for Scott. I can only wonder at the mindset behind such exclusion.

Kate | 18 October 2008  

I share Kate's concern for all those on death row. As it turns out, Scott's is the only family I know, and Scott is the only one of the three Australians who asked to meet with me. His Nigerian cellmate Emmanuel also asked to meet with me. So I did and I also mentioned him.

Frank Brennan SJ | 18 October 2008  

Congratulations again Frank. How moving it was to hear the attending priest's description of those two young African drug dealers who died recently in such suffering before a firing squad;(was that in Indonesia?). I intend to write to the PM asking that he seek clemency for all the three Australains on death row in Indonesia, as well for all Indonesians awaiting a similar horrible death.Thanks to Frank for inspiring us to act.

Claude Rigney | 19 October 2008  

Wake up! The bomber/s earned it; he/they should get it.

Hugh Laracy | 20 October 2008  

During the Q&A session at the Ubud festival, I made the point that the two most coherent positions on the death penalty are: (1) restricting the death penalty to those cases in which there is - (a) violent, serious crime of the worst order, (b) no doubt about the identity and guilt of the accused, (c) transparent, non-discriminatory application of the penalty, and (d) no evidence whatever of remorse or seeking of forgiveness; and (2) complete opposition with the theoretical exception of death for those cases in category 1 in countries where the jail system does not provide sufficient safeguard against the offender committing such an act again. Practically this exception would not be available in countries such as Australia and Indonesia, and thus there would be no case for the death penalty ever being imposed.

There are of course other, less coherent positions which would permit the death penalty in a range of circumstances.

In the past, Australia has formally and consistently been committed to position (2). It is my position because I think it the most morally coherent position. I think Australia should stick to this position, especially at this time, lest we be seen to be hypocritical on the death penalty, thus reducing the effectiveness of our pleading for Australians on death row in Indonesia.

Those adopting position (1) could justify the execution of the Bali bombers. Those adopting position (2) could not. Any country which voted for the UN resolution of December 2007 is committed to position (2). To switch positions having so recently called for an immediate moratorium on all executions risks Australia being seen to be hypocritical or to be opposed to the death penalty only in some insufficiently articulated circumstances.

Frank Brennan SJ | 21 October 2008  

Yesterday I sent a copy of Frank's article to Kevin Rudd with a request that he publicly oppose the death penalty for the Bali bombers and for anyone else under sentence of execution. I believe the Government, like the Popes, should speak out against capital punishment even when horrendous crimes are involved. Like Kevin Luxford, I was taught at school (in my case, by the Jesuits) that the State has the right to exact this punishment. An eminent lay jurist who taught me later at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome rejected this teaching. I too have serious doubts about its validity. Church teaching in some areas can and does change with the passage of time and the growth of knowledge. Thank you again, Frank Brennan, for your clarity, wisdom and leadership.

Michael Costigan | 22 October 2008  

I am also opposed to the death sentence. I wrote to the minister responsible, but I did not get an answer.

Theo Dopheide | 23 October 2008  

The world at large seems to slaver over the prospect of the execution of the bali bombers. Of course you cannot blame the press for their interest - it will be big earner for them. The general public soak up the pathos - suspense, drama, tragedy.

However the reality is that in the next few hours or days three men will die. As if there is not enough violent death in this world and the legacy it passes through to new generations, this expression of vengeance will be a step backwards for the human race.

Just as drowning your sorrows in drink is a very temporary state the execution of these men will only give temporary "closure" for those poor people who have lost their dear ones in the bombing. The day after the perpetrators have been executed the lost will still be lost - there is no closure.

The best we can do as human beings is to show these people that we are capable of greater mercy than they.

james rafter | 02 November 2008  

I totally agree with your philosophy. Another argument against the death penalty in my mind is that of the repulsive idea of a state (representing me) sponsored protocol of putting someone to death. That is, you actually have to employ someone e.g a physician to write a manual on how to end a human life. No GP could do that because of the hippocratic oath, so who does.

james rafter | 02 November 2008  

Well said Frank. The death penalty never achieves anything positive, but it always demeans us all. It is nothing but state-sanctioned premeditated murder.

Warwick | 05 November 2008  

Thank goodness some people have the moral cojones to question the loud majority in their support of this brutal outrage. Every civilized society develops a system, called justice, whereby the individual who injures that society is sanctioned by some outside authority who steps above simple vengeance desired by the victims. This is because out-and-out vengeance merely escalates violence. The ability to step beyond simple retribution is the hallmark of a developed or civilised morality.

philomena | 09 November 2008  

May they rest in peace, and may the rest of us get on with shaping a more just world.

Frank Brennan SJ | 09 November 2008  

We can all be grateful for the tone and moral authority of the remarks by Prime Minister Rudd and Foreign Minister Smith upon the execution of the Bali bombers. May those who mourn the loss of loved ones be comforted and may all who seek justice work for a universal moratorium on the death penalty.

Frank Brennan SJ | 11 November 2008  

I have pondered about the benefits of the death penalty imposed by the state on those it considers criminals. I wonder if Herod and the Roman government of the day really achieved their objectives by the execution of Jesus Christ. I assume that Herod and his advisors are no different to the people who administer governance today and they would have thought that by executing Jesus they were achieving some bureacratic purpose.One has to ask WHY when considering the death penalty. Who benefits? I suspect it is just a bureacratic convenience in that the person can be executed and the file closed releasing the bureacracy to get on with the other problems of the day. What other benefit could there be to Government?

Kern Fuller | 13 December 2008  

I agreed that Amrozi deserved death, not Scott Rush because Scott did not kill anybody. Please save Scott Rush because it was not his fault because the drug ringleaders brainwashed him. I am against death penalty for Australians. It is not God's wills to kill anybody by death penalty.

John | 28 October 2009  

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