As a child growing up in England in the 1950s I can still remember the chill and frisson of fascinated fear we all felt on the occasions a death sentence was carried out. An overriding aura of a shameful and squalid act being committed pervaded the nation. All the usual suspects, the protests and vigils by abolitionists, the truculent affirmations from saloon-bar conservatives and above it all the solemn sententious pronouncements from judges and political leaders, lending a grisly numinosity to the proceedings. It was rather as if the sun had broken through the clouds when in 1965 Britain abolished the death penalty.
Back then judicial killings were few and far between, really only imposed for premeditated murder, the killing of a police officer or in furtherance of a felony. It wasn’t always so. In Britain of the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were over 200 capital offenses on the books and death by hanging was a daily and very public affair, visited by the propertied classes on the poor and the hungry as a fit and proper way to keep them in line.
Today, a majority of nations have abolished the death penalty. Some 155 countries no longer carry it out while 40 still retain it, 32 of which specifically citing drug trading as a capital offense.
In the next few weeks it is virtually certain that Indonesia will put two Australian drug smugglers to death by shooting. Andrew Chan (31) and Myuran Sukumaran (33) are convicted ringleaders of the Bali 9 drug gang, arrested at Bali’s airport while attempting to smuggle 8.3kig of heroin back to Australia in 2005.
Indonesia has a serious drug problem and President Joko Widodo has made clear his intention to crack down on drugs. Every country jealously guards its sovereign right to determine their policy on capital punishment and Indonesia is following in the footsteps of ASEAN neighbours Singapore and Malaysia, who make a point of
executing drug smugglers for relatively small amounts and standing up to international pressure for clemency. Indonesia is by no means the most eager among nations to execute its criminals. That dubious honor goes to China, followed by certain Middle Eastern countries and the U.S. Lecturing another country on capital punishment seldom has a positive outcome and the unfortunate accused rapidly become political pawns.
The best arguments against capital punishment must be the arbitrary nature of its application and the inevitable execution of innocent people., which we now know for a fact takes place in an unacceptably high ratio of cases. The death sentence, and whether to carry it out, is every bit as much about politics as it is about justice. It follows that everyone involved, from indictment to execution of sentence, is demeaned to some extent in the process. In countries where corruption is widespread the arbitrary nature of sentencing is compounded when both the police and the judiciary can be bought. Thus in Indonesia we have seen gross disparities in sentencing, where a cold-blooded murderer gets off with a few years jail while a minor drug smuggler faces the firing squad. Most notoriously, the scion of the former ruling dynasty convicted of ordering the murder of a judge and walking free after 4-years of very easy time.
These arguments expose the weakness in the moral argument against clemency. Acting tough against foreign pressure, while understandable deceives nobody, especially when professional killers and drug barons go free. Shooting the mules or, on a good day, a junior drug non-com, is morally bankrupt.
However much money is thrown at the problem all attempts to wipe out the international drug trade have been conspicuous by their failure. Clearly, such attempts ignore the root of the problem.
In the case of the two Bali 9 ringleaders ham-handed public pressure by the Australian premier Tony Abbott is unlikely to work. Domestically embattled President Widodo would have a hard time responding favourably, but quiet behind-the-scenes argument just might swing it.
Perhaps the nastiest element in this particular episode is the role played by the Australian Federal Police (AFP). It has been alleged and subsequently admitted by the AFP that knowing of the conspiracy to buy heroin in Bali they allowed the conspirators to travel to Bali and informed the Indonesian police of the plan. It further transpired that both the AFP and the Indonesian police were aware the gang had already made one earlier successful drug run. The father of one of the smugglers has stated that he informed the AFP of his son’s involvement in the crime on the assurance that his son would be arrested and prevented from traveling to Bali, where he could face the death penalty. That assurance was not honoured. The AFP lied through its teeth when they claimed they could not arrest or detain the conspirators on departure. The truth was admitted later, when an AFP spokesman allowed this was done to catch bigger fish.
If true, it didn’t work. Or at least, not as far as we know. In another questionable development, following the arrest of the gang by the police in Bali the Thai woman, who had brought the heroin to Bali from Bangkok, managed to ‘escape’ from Bali but was detained by the Malaysian police at the Thai border. The woman was released from custody on the appearance on the scene of Indonesian police officers.
Clearly it is politically expedient if not obligatory for the Australian PM to urge mercy on the Indonesian president but it’s also an act of stunning hypocrisy when he allows the AFP to inform the Bali authorities of the activities of Australian drug smugglers when it is known that Indonesia imposes the death penalty for the crime.
It can be claimed that drug smugglers get what they deserve. In the case of the Bali 9, two of them are soon to be shot dead while the remainder are serving 20 years to life in an Indonesian jail.
The taking of human life by the state whenever and wherever it occurs is a rotten business, it is moreover, grossly ineffective. It fails as a deterrent and brings both the law and justice into contempt.
This is why a majority of countries have abandoned capital punishment and those countries that have not, execute far fewer people than they used. It is also the best way for President Widodo can demonstrate political strength and commute the death sentence on the ringleaders of the Bali 9.