Tags: Australia | Bali | death | penalty | case

Australia Silent on Bali Death Penalty Case

Monday, 08 February 2010 10:12 AM

SYDNEY, Australia — It’s been more than 40 years since the last person was killed by the state in Australia.

Capital punishment is not just banished for now in Australia, but forever. Last year the Federal Attorney General made preparations to enact a law that would ensure it could never be reintroduced.

Not that Australians have much appetite for it.

The last man hanged in Australia was Ronald Ryan in 1967. He shot a prison guard when attempting to break out of Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison in 1965.

Australia may have outlawed the death penalty in perpetuity — but that stance does not help Australians who find themselves on death row in other parts of the world, where drug couriering is enough to earn you a date with the firing squad or the noose.

The most infamous of those expatriate inmates are collectively called the Bali 9, who entered the nation’s consciousness on Apr. 17, 2005, when they were arrested on the Indonesian island of Bali for attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin to Australia, with a street value of more than 4 million Australian dollars ($36 million today).

For many Australians, Bali feels like Australia’s island. It’s a place for your first holiday away from home, package tours, honeymoons, great surf breaks, nightclubs and cheap drinks; hospitable, unthreatening, beautiful.

But the law has long prescribed a mandatory death sentence for drug smuggling — so when footage first aired of nine young Australians, aged between 18 and 28, having their colorful Hawaiian shirts pulled up to reveal parcels of heroin taped across their rib cages — the dread and fear emerging from the grainy footage was palatable.

This was the moment where a veil was lifted; the libertine, democratic, predominantly Christian, and to a degree — hedonistic party-loving Australia — coming up against a predominantly Muslim, abstentious culture — with the death penalty.

The case also provided a test for the Australian government — how far would it intervene to save the nine — in a country that is arguably Australia’s most important neighbor (where cooperation in criminal matters such as terrorism and drugs continues to be crucial to both nations), but where a sense of fragility has long characterized the relationship?

If the Bali 9 and their families were expecting the Australian government to swoop in like white knights and arrange for the prisoners to be extradited and tried in Australia, they were disappointed. Australians who break the law abroad must face the penalties of that jurisdiction, is the general rule of thumb.

Instead help came largely from the Melbourne legal fraternity with highly skilled and (usually) highly paid barristers acting for some of the accused pro bono.

Almost five years on, and numerous trials later, three of the Bali 9 face the death penalty for being found to be the ringleaders of the group, while the others (the mules) are serving lengthy prison sentences.

All are currently being held in Bali’s Kerobokan prison where their daily life is reported by both the Australian tabloid and broadsheet media with a kind of fascination.

Their prison romances, friendships and shifting allegiances, what food they eat, how often their parents visit, their exercise regime, the see-saw of their emotions and inner lives, are reported weekly. You can chart the arc in the press cuttings — the disbelief that they had been caught, the denial, the anger at being in jail and now — possibly — the acceptance.

Recently a journalist from The Sydney Morning Herald was granted an exclusive interview with two of the men facing death row: Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. The report discussed how they were “helping others” in the prison’s computer room and that prison authorities acknowledged they “have turned their lives around and made a positive contribution to life inside Kerobokan.”

Andrew Chan is studying theology, and reconnecting with his Christian heritage, while Myuran Sukumaran is trying to buoy his spirits by “hoping I’ll get a life sentence.”

A "tell-all book" about the prison has even been released by Australian author Kathryn Bonella. Its account represents the prison as a sort of Hades of drug-taking and orgies, denounced by members of the Bali 9 as “lies.”

While the public are fed tidbits about the minutiae of life on death row — questions have been raised about the role the Australian Federal Police (AFP) played in delivering the Bali 9 to their fate, and the relationships Australia has with its neighbors when it comes to Australians citizens being killed by the state.

Australia tends to maintain a softly-softly stance when it comes to its citizens in trouble abroad — offering them consular and legal assistance, but respecting the sovereignty of that county and allowing the legal system of that country to take its course.

Australia stood back in 2005 when Melbourne man Nguyen Van Tuong was hanged for drug trafficking in Singapore — despite an outcry from the public and the media to intervene, in scenes that were reminiscent of the outcry over the Ryan hanging.

Yet there are circumstances in the Bali 9 case that compromise Australia’s coolly detached, yet notionally
compassionate stance.

In 2005, Brisbane father Lee Rush contacted the AFP, desperately worried about his 19-year-old son Scott, whom he suspected was involved in drugs.

The AFP promised to stop Scott from traveling to Bali. Instead they reneged on the deal and tipped off the Indonesian authorities about the drug-running — knowing that the death penalty awaited him. One of the Bali 9 now facing the death penalty, Scott was paid a few thousand dollars for the trip.

In response to the controversy surrounding the policing, Australia's federal government last December issued new guidelines that may prevent another situation where the Australian police effectively deliver one of its citizens to the firing squad. The guideslines say that when cooperating with other countries, senior police officers must consider a suspect’s age, nationality and whether capital punishment is a factor.

Australia’s acting foreign minister Simon Crean last week pondered the question of if Australia had extra obligations to Scott Rush after its involvment in his situation.

Crean said “representations would be made”and when Australians found themselves in trouble overseas “all of those circumstances, the particular facts surrounding the case, are brought to the attention of those we make representations to.”

“We continue to make representations … we do not support capital punishment,” Crean said. “We say it's not appropriate here, and that's indeed the law, but we urge that same set of circumstances in relation to other countries' jurisdiction.”

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Monday, 08 February 2010 10:12 AM
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