When Australia pleads for the lives of two Bali 9 members on death row in Indonesia, it is a plea for everyone everywhere sentenced to state killing, Melissa Parke says.
Plea extends to all sentenced to death
Why is it that blank bullets are distributed to 9 of the 12 members of the Indonesian firing squad, leaving each member of the squad with the hope that it was not their bullet that exploded the heart of the condemned person tied to a stake?
It is because it is contrary to our shared human value of respect for human life for the state to plan and calculate the termination of life, regardless of the nature of the crime or the nationality of the perpetrator.
Last week a letter endorsed by more than 110 federal members and senators from across the political spectrum was sent to the Indonesian government and parliament requesting that the death sentences be urgently reconsidered.
The letter from MPs did not seek to minimise the serious nature of Sukuraman’s and Chan’s crime of drug trafficking, given the damaging effects of illicit drugs on our societies. We expressed the view that Mr Sukumaran and Mr Chan should be punished for their crime, and that we have the highest respect for Indonesia’s sovereignty and political independence, and for the integrity of its judicial system.
We noted that in a case brought by Indonesian citizen Edith Yunita Sianturi, Scott Rush and others, in 2007, in the Indonesian Constitutional Court, the validity of the death penalty was upheld by a majority of 6 to 3, yet the majority judges accepted, on the extensive evidence before them, that the death penalty was not a deterrent any more than life or other heavy term of imprisonment.
The majority judges recommended that the death penalty should no longer be the primary form of punishment for serious offences in Indonesia and that it should be able to be imposed with a prohibition or grace period of 10 years, so that ‘if the prisoner shows good behaviour, it can be amended to a lifelong sentence or imprisonment for 20 years’.
Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran have now been imprisoned for more than 10 years. By reason of their good behaviour, demonstrated rehabilitation and education of other prisoners, both Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran would appear to come within the scope of the Constitutional Court’s sensible and humane recommendation.
Constraints are inevitable if…people at risk of execution
As noted in the letter by more than 110 Australian MPs, it is significant that both Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran were only apprehended in Bali as a result of information provided by the Australian Federal Police to their Indonesian counterparts in relation to their presence in Bali with drugs obtained in Indonesia, but intended for sale and use in Australia. The impact of their crime, serious as it was, was intended for Australia, not Indonesia. Over many years now the Indonesian police and the AFP have exchanged intelligence and engaged with each other to address international crime and terrorism.
It is certainly not in the interest of either country for cooperation between our police forces to be constrained, yet constraints are inevitable if cooperation puts people at risk of execution.
The MPs’ letter also noted that the international trend – including for the most serious crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity – is overwhelmingly away from capital punishment and towards the imposition of lengthy prison sentences for serious crimes, through which prisoners can reflect on their mistakes and endeavour to atone for them through good behaviour, rehabilitation and community service. The death penalty admits no possibility of redemption, or of rehabilitation.
Australians will recall the hanging of the young Melbourne man Van Tuong Nguyen on 2 December 2005, in Singapore. Van had admitted carrying drugs in order to help his twin brother pay off debts. Van admitted guilt at the first opportunity, showed great remorse, and he fully cooperated with police. Just before he died, his lawyer Lex Lasry said:
‘He is completely rehabilitated, completely reformed, completely focused on doing what is good, and now they are going to kill him’.
Could anyone argue honestly that this execution achieved any useful purpose for society? Of course not, and nor would the executions of Myuran and Andrew, who are similarly rehabilitated and focused on doing good for others, achieve any useful purpose.
I acknowledge that Indonesia takes offences involving drugs very seriously and that it wishes, understandably, to ensure that a strong message is sent to the community that dealing in drugs will not be tolerated. I would simply say that it is possible to be tough on crime and drugs without imposing the death penalty, which is itself a fundamental violation of the right to life.
Right to life enshrined in Indonesian constitution
The right to life is enshrined within the Indonesian constitution, and has been honoured by Indonesia in its manifest efforts to help those many Indonesian citizens facing execution in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Iran and Singapore, and in the restraint shown by Indonesia in its application of the death penalty over recent years.
The application of the death penalty, which, in the case of Andrew and Myuran would come after they have spent 10 years on death row in an endless churn of dread, hope and uncertainty, is the practice of torture, as noted by renowned anti-death penalty campaigner and author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents, Sister Helen Prejean, who observed:
… by the time people I have been with finally climb into the chair to be killed, they have died a thousand times already because of their anticipation of the final horror.
We must also recognise that the death penalty is almost always political and commonly applied on the basis of discriminatory considerations rather than the facts of individual cases. In the US, for instance, African Americans represent 42% of the inmates on death row but only 12% of the nation’s population. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the death penalty system:
… is applied in an unfair and unjust manner against people, largely dependent on how much money they have, the skill of their attorneys, the race of the victim and where the crime took place. People of color are far more likely to be executed than white people, especially if the victim is white.
Former Indonesian President Yudhoyono instituted a moratorium on the death penalty in Indonesia, following the public outcry over a series of televised beheadings of Indonesian female migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and a change of mood in Indonesia about the death penalty and the importance of mercy. Unfortunately, as we are only too aware of in this country, politicians can also be quite adept at influencing public moods in a negative sense, and that seems to be what is currently happening in Indonesia in the context of drug-related death penalty cases. It is an appalling injustice for the flames of human life to be extinguished based on the accident of fortune that is politics.
At stake is a principle that I am glad to say is adhered to on a bipartisan basis in Australia, in this parliament – namely, that the death penalty must be opposed wherever and to whomever it is applied.
In 2010, I was proud that the government, with the support of the then opposition, passed the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Act, which imported into Australian law the principles contained in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR aimed at the abolition of the death penalty.
That was why I felt it was important to speak in this place in 2008 on the anniversary of the Bali bombings to express opposition to the executions of the Bali bombers that were about to take place. At the time, I quoted from a letter written on the World Day Against the Death Penalty to the then member for Werriwa, now member for Fowler, Chris Hayes. The letter was from (one of the Bali 9) Scott Rush, who, at the time, was on death row and whose sentence has thankfully been commuted: Scott wrote:
If the opposition – against the death penalty – is just for us Australian citizens it makes us stick out, like sore thumbs, amongst all the other nationals who have also got the death penalty. I say this because I share my cell with a Nigerian, Emmanuel, whose dignity and kindness helps comfort us on our many dark nights. So taking a consistent stand for everyone on the death penalty—that helps us here on the inside of the wall.
Of course, we are focused on the plight of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran – two young men, Australians – but our plea for their lives, our careful and principled argument for their lives, extends to a call for mercy, humanity and respect for the right to life to be shown to all those sentenced to death.
* This speech was given by Ms Parke in the same session as the more widely publicised speeches of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Tanya Plibersek, on 12 Feb 2015. Ms Parke is a member of Civil Liberties Australia.
Edited by Civil Liberties Australia CEO, Bill Rowlings. Click for the full speech