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It’s been four days since eight people were executed in Indonesia under the guise of law enforcement but in what was actually an act of obscene political thuggery and grandstanding. I had meant to register my meek protest on Wednesday, the day the bullets sank into their targets’ chests, as I swirled with anger, disgust and sadness, as did so many thousands around the world, to be timely, while the matter was still current.

But of course, it is still timely because the issues remain even if those drug traffickers have been extinguished. Because the issue of justice in Indonesia, and perhaps other countries as well, is far from over. So much has been written about this event, some eloquently, much with humanity, and too much with breathtaking hatred, and I find it impossible to record all streams of thought without risk of writing a mini thesis.

In Australia we have been patriotically bent and focussed on our own with much attention and debate centred on Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and their (admirable) reformation. They became familiar to us, as did their families, and their untimely deaths have allowed us to personalise the stark reality of execution and roused the nation’s conscientiousness of what it means to kill healthy people, even ones who had done bad things. There is much reason to be outraged. There are some who will not lament these  deaths and who will speak of just desserts, perhaps some affected by drug-related losses in their lives – perhaps, some with surprising passion and some even with confounding glee (glee!), but that doesn’t achieve much, or anything actually, and it certainly doesn’t get to the heart of the matter – which, in my mind, is due process and the failings of a flawed and fallible justice system.

If any government practices the death penalty as an acceptable punishment (as unacceptable as it is), then it must have a judicial system which is robust, ethical and impartial and doesn’t bow to bribery or political motivation in order to determine guilt or punishment. A justice system that is actually – just. Imagine. I won’t start a debate about the morality of the death penalty, or of what constitutes a sufficient penalty for serious crimes, or even about the part rehabilitation and worth as human beings should play in incarceration. But I will pose some questions:

  • What respectable government shuts its ears to credible claims of corruption at the highest judicial levels and executes its victims before the claims are investigated?
  • What government carries out executions while constitutional court proceedings are still underway?
  • What credible justice system ignores medical advice and sends a mentally ill man who can’t even comprehend his own fate to death?
  • What unspeakably cruel game forces a mother to make a final farewell to her children and then provides a temporary stay of execution just hours before she is scheduled to die, because someone has handed themselves in at the eleventh hour putting in serious doubt her guilt which she has denied from the beginning?
  • What sort of judicial system metes out different punishments for different nationalities for the same crime?
  • What sort of criminal system turns the agonisingly elongated process of taking of human lives into a circus worthy of souvenir photos?
  • What sort of system denies those to be killed the presence of their spiritual counsellors against their own guidelines, then reverses its decision, or ignores its own guidelines to reconsider the death penalty after 10 years of rehabilitation?
  • What sort of justice system routinely punishes those who appeal lengthy sentence with death sentences instead?

And while we watched these condemned people inch slowly to their deaths, our internet lit up with tweets and petitions and sympathy and rants and trolls and insults, and people with candles gathered quietly and hoped and wept, and our diplomats and politicians tiptoed carefully along a precariously thin wire making pleas and representations, trying to tease out the exact spot where they may have some influence rather than do damage.

But we were always destined to fail, despite the valiant efforts. Because these executions were not so much about punishing a bunch of drug traffickers as about a leader perceived as weak under pressure to make a show of (supposed) political strength to a national audience, most chanting for blood, on an international stage. The world looked on, morbidly fascinated and sickened at the same time, pitted against a leader and his attorney determined to make their mark and unwilling to back down.

I write this in a week when thousands have perished in Nepal, a tragic event which some may argue dwarfs the deaths of a few convicted criminals. But surely compassion isn’t a finite object that needs to be divvied up, and this is not a competition for which human horror deserves to elicit the biggest response?

The men in Indonesia were arrested and incarcerated because of their crimes, but they were killed as political tools. This wasn’t justice – tough justice was already being served in little, sweaty concrete gaol cells, for the rest of their natural lives. Forever locked up. Surely that’s enough punishment even to satisfy the angry ones, if not more.

As the new week breaks, the noise about these executions will fade and eventually our Ambassador will be returned, and the justice system in Indonesia will limp along tripping over its own dysfunction and corruption. There is little doubt there will be more executions under the watchful and hateful gazes of a president and his Attorney General.

Perhaps next time it will be Mary Jane Veloso from the Philippines or Serge Atlaoui of France, both of whom have continually claimed their innocence.

It’s just a question of who will be next, and when and where, perhaps do they really deserve this, and not to forget the real killer of a question – did they actually do it?


Myuran Sukumaran – Putting a face to death