Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

Uphill Battle to Save Australians From Execution

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Jun 23 2011 (IPS) - Any Australian government efforts to have two of its citizens spared from the death penalty in Indonesia have been made more difficult by past refusals to intervene on behalf of three Indonesian Islamists in the lead-up to their executions in 2008.

Time is running out for Australian citizens Andrew Chan, 27, and Myuran Sukumaran, 30.

The two men were sentenced to death by firing squad in Indonesia in 2006 for their roles in organising the attempted smuggling of more than eight kilograms of heroin from the Indonesian island of Bali to Australia in April 2005.

Acting on information provided by the Australian Federal Police, Indonesian authorities swooped, arresting Chan, Sukumaran and seven other members of the trafficking group, since dubbed the ‘Bali Nine’.

Although six members of the group actually received death sentences, Chan and Sukumaran are the only two still on death row.

Bali Nine couriers Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen, Matthew Norman and Si Yi Chen had their sentences downgraded to life in prison in 2008 following a roller-coaster ride of appeals and counter-appeals. Initially awarded life terms, their sentences were reduced to 20 years and then upgraded to death before finally settling back where they started – at life in prison.

Another member of the group, 24-year-old Scott Rush, experienced similar ups and downs in his appeal process. Rush’s final appeal against the death penalty was commuted to a life sentence on May 10 this year.

That same day, Chan’s last available judicial effort to save himself was rejected, although the Indonesian Supreme Court only revealed its decision on Jun. 17.

It means that an appeal to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has the power to grant clemency in such cases, is Chan’s only hope of avoiding being executed.

Clearly, the court’s decision to uphold Chan’s death sentence does not bode well for Sukumaran. Both men launched their final appeals, known as judicial reviews, last August.

Although the outcome of Sukumaran’s review has yet to be announced, the likelihood is that he, like Chan, will not be given a reprieve. Instead, it is likely that both will be pinning all their hopes on the mercy of President Yudhoyono.

The Australian Government has pledged to do all it can to help Chan. Sukumaran can expect the same assistance if his appeal fails.

“I’ll be happy to do whatever is necessary to put as much force as we can into the appeal for clemency for Andrew Chan, including personally involving myself,” said Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who also reiterated the government’s opposition to the death penalty, the day after the rejection of Chan’s judicial review was made public.

Foreign minister Kevin Rudd also spoke of backing Chan, committing “to use every form of representation to government concerned in support of that person.”

In approaching Yudhoyono, who became the first Indonesian head of state to address the Australian parliament in March last year, Australian leaders can highlight the close relations that exist between Indonesia and its southern neighbour.

Presently, the two countries cooperate on a range of issues of concern to both, including counter- terrorism, people smuggling and illegal fishing. Additionally, some 400 Australian firms operate in Indonesia and bilateral trade was worth 11.3 billion Australian dollars in 2009. Close to 14,000 Indonesian students studied here in 2010.

Indonesia is also the largest recipient of Australian aid funds, worth an estimated 458.7 million Australian dollars in the last twelve months alone, according to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

While this strong and growing bilateral relationship places Gillard government representatives in a good position from which to call on Yudhoyono to grant clemency to Chan and, if required, Sukumaran, considerable obstacles stand in the way of achieving that goal.

Indeed, Yudhoyono’s own views on the matter loom as a major challenge for Australian officials. The Indonesian leader is regarded as a staunch supporter of capital punishment, including for those convicted of drug trafficking. Since coming to power in 2004, he has consistently maintained that he will not pardon drug convicts.

But any Australian efforts to influence a change of mind in Yudhoyono will undoubtedly be severely weakened by the attitudes of previous governments to the death sentences handed down to three Indonesian Islamist militants in 2003.

Convicted for their roles in the 2002 Bali bombings in which 202 people died, including 88 Australians, the three men were executed by firing squad in November 2008.

Despite Australia’s long-standing opposition to capital punishment, former prime minister John Howard stated in 2007 that he would not intercede for the Bali bombers while then foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was particularly blunt.

“The Australian government will not lift a finger to support these three people who killed 88 Australians in Bali,” Downer famously said.

One month prior to leading the Australian Labor Party to victory in elections that year, then-opposition leader Rudd said that his government would never seek clemency for a terrorist on death row, despite having previously argued that the death penalty “is unacceptable in all circumstances and in all jurisdictions.”

The Gillard government now faces an uphill battle to persuade Yudhoyono to grant clemency to Chan and, in the most likely scenario, to Sukumaran too.

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