We’re almost down to the bare threads on the final wire for Australian ‘Bali 9’ ringleaders, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who face death by firing squad on Indonesia’s remote Nusa Kambangan prison island. While the two await a final appeal, which has been delayed until next week, the case is leading to fresh scrutiny on Indonesia’s rigid drug laws from right across the international community—so too, the raw fact that primitive justice still remains a well-practised reality in many corners of our modern world.
Chan and Sukumaran are among 15 Australians currently facing execution in prisons throughout the world. At present, 33 nations retain the right to execute criminals charged with drug trafficking, 13 mandatorily. Singapore, Malaysia and Iran are amongst the toughest when it comes to narcotics trafficking, Indonesia not far behind—especially of late.
Since taking office last November, President Joko Widodo, aka Jokowi, has prioritised drug-related executions, particularly of foreign nationals. Denying clemency to all applicants since his inauguration, six have already been executed this year under his watch (just 27 in total were executed in the entire 15 years before his freehold).
For those who came in late, Chan and Sukumaran have been on death row for the better part of a decade for their role in the attempted import of 8kg of heroin from Bali to Australia in 2005. Only four other Australians have been executed by foreign governments—the most recent, Van Tuong Nguyen, hanged in Singapore 2005 for trying to mule 396.2 g of heroin into Australia.
Jokowi has sighted state execution as a sovereign right, a necessity to combat Indonesia’s national “drug emergency”, something academics argue is not only exaggerated, but based on faulty statistics to begin with. Others, like Human Rights International, sight Jokowi’s executions as little more than political show—a way of stoking national sentiment, acting tough after a shaky start to his presidential tenure.
The hypocrisy is not lost either—while enforcing the death penalty, Indonesia has staunchly advocated for the release of its own citizens on death row abroad. Last year it spent $2 million to halt the beheading of Satinah Binti Jumadi Ahmad, an Indonesian maid convicted of murder in Saudi Arabia.
Chan and Sukumaran are criminals; they intended to sell drugs for profit and potentially damage the lives of thousands, yet there remains a stark moral divide between nations like Australia and Indonesia as to how best bring cases like these to justice.
As part of the 140 countries that have abolished the death penalty since 1970, Australia’s justice system punishes without resorting to barbarism (the hanging of Ronald Ryan in Melbourne in 1967 spelt the end of Australian state execution).
“Giving the state power and right to end human life is one of the greatest ethical concerns surrounding the death penalty”
Yet it’s eye for an eye elsewhere—Saudi Arabia crucified a man for political dissent in 2013; China executes over 2,000 people every year, its government notorious for supressing the actual figure; last year, our primary ally, the USA ranked fifth highest on the execution list.
Giving the state power and right to end human life is one of the greatest ethical concerns surrounding the death penalty. As The Australian reminds us, state execution contravenes the fundamental principle “that the protection of life, including from the power of the state, is the moral bedrock of any worthy system of law”. The Drum’s Damien Kingsbury articulates the sense shared by many that “the impersonal process of the state—any state—taking someone’s life is bureaucratically grotesque”.
A more practical problem is whether or not it actually works. Sending a strong signal to would-be offenders is the primary rationale for state execution, yet there’s little evidence to suggest that it does.
Research comparing crime across 35 years in Singapore and Hong Kong (one supporting the death penalty, the other abolishing it in the early nineties) saw homicide levels remain stable regardless of the threat of criminal execution. In the USA, higher rates of homicide are found in states where capital punishment is legal. As Australian QC, Lex Lasry puts it “the death penalty has no real deterrent value—it’s just a terrible thing to do”. Fair to say, state execution is really a symptom of violent culture, not the solution to it.
How does this relate to drugs? Harm Reduction International highlights the case of Iran and Sweden—the former with the death penalty and high prevalence of drug use; the latter, no death penalty and comparatively low drug use. This is purely anecdotal; credible research in the field is notoriously mixed and difficult to glean. However, while there’s no conclusive evidence to outright deny that it deters drug trade, there’s just as little to support it.
It’s worth remembering also that corrupt law enforcement often colludes and sustains the drug trade, while the ‘small fish’—poor, young, uneducated couriers—are typically the ones on the receiving end, instead of those higher up in the chain.
These reasons alone ought to tip the scales in favour of global abolishment—that is, if the sheer manner in which it demoralises human life does not suffice.
Should Chan and Sukumaran’s appeal fail, the ‘Bali Two’ will be woken before dawn sometime in the coming weeks; with them, eight others—convicts from Nigeria, Philippines, France; and Brazilian man, Rodrigo Gularte, thought to be suffering from mental illness. They’ll be led to a jungle clearing, given the choice to stand or sit, in blindfold or hood and from ten metres away twelve gunmen will fire live ammunition into their bodies.
With those flares, the debate on capital punishment—drugs or otherwise—will rage on.