Imagine being woken in the middle of the night and forcibly marched out of your room. You’re blindfold, pushed up against a cold wall, and asked if you want to stand or sit. Someone marks a spot on your shirt, just above your heart with a marker. There’s so much commotion, your heart is racing and… BANG. Nothing. If you’re lucky the first shot will kill you, if not, a final shot will be fired into your head.
This is how eight men, among them Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were executed at midnight on April 29th this year. During the time of the executions, my Facebook newsfeed erupted with strong, colourful public opinion: many of the opinion that these two men knew the consequences, and therefore deserved death. It seemed to me compassion and empathy, two fundamental human emotions, were becoming rarer and rare.
The Bali Nine “ringleaders”, Chan and Sukumaran, were in their early 20s when they were arrested in 2005 for attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin from Indonesia to Australia. Many people make the judgement that they knew the penalty for drug trafficking in Indonesia. But did they really? They were young, naïve and positively stupid. Chan saw it as a “quick pay day” and Sukumaran hoped to buy a new car and start up a business. I look at some 20-something-year-olds now and see their irresponsible choices in drugs and other potentially illegal activity, and think how easy it is for people to make mistakes. Both Chan and Sukumaran acknowledged their crime and knew they must do the time, but the death penalty offers no opportunity for reform.
During their time in prison, Chan and Sukumaran showed the power of prison rehabilitation. Chan became a pastor, counselling and mentoring inmates and Sukumaran became a passionate artist, returning the proceeds from his public exhibitions to the prison for art supplies and donating to a local drug rehabilitation centre. Sukumaran also helped rehabilitate fellow inmates by attempting to establish a drug-counselling program and teaching job skills, such as computer literacy and graphic design. In a brave move, the Governor of Keroboken Prison spoke at Chan and Sukumaran’s appeal trials asking for the men to be spared execution because of their rehabilitation and positive contribution to the Indonesian community. Chan and Sukumaran achieved what prison systems around the world aspire to achieve and that is to rehabilitate drug offenders. The death penalty is a senseless deprivation of life with no benefit to the state.
Newly elected Indonesian president Joko Widodo has accelerated the death penalty campaign under political pressure to show the world his political muscle. Widodo wants to tackle his country’s systemic drug problem and fair enough, but an eye for an eye will not achieve a decrease in Indonesia’s drug use. Most of the drugs consumed in Indonesia are manufactured in Indonesia. Chan and Sukumaran were smuggling drugs out of Indonesia. I don’t condone what they did at all, but, perhaps we should be looking at the deeper issue of Australia’s drug culture. Why is there a demand for drugs? Why are people turning to drugs? Young people “poppin’ pingas” at music festivals or “smokin’ dope” at house parties, are in fact perpetuating a global trade that kills half a million people each year, destroys families and ruins the lives of those caught supplying the growing demand.
Interestingly, up to 360 Indonesians face the death penalty around the world, 230 are on drug charges. No country has more successfully and aggressively been able to save its own citizens than Indonesia. Yet, Joko Widodo refuses to show the same mercy to Australian citizens – nothing like a little political hypocrisy.
The argument that the death penalty deters criminal activity is one that has been repeatedly discredited. According to Amnesty International, there is no evidence that the death penalty is any more effective in reducing crime than imprisonment.
The death penalty is a violent, inhumane and out-dated punishment. As of March 2015, 99 countries have abolished it. If the world is to aspire towards universal humanism and away from a culture of violence, the death penalty must be a thing of a primitive past. Unfortunately, this is a world we do not yet live in and Chan and Sukumaran paid the price because, according to the President of Indonesia, more will be achieved through acts of retribution, than acts of mercy (a pessimistic reversal of Nelson Mandela’s otherwise optimistic quote).