Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

Mourning the deaths of ‘the painter and the pastor’

| Leave a comment

Image from

Myuran Sukumaran, self portrait and portrait of fellow death-row inmate Andrew Chan. Image from

By Yvette Selim

University of New South Wales

In the early hours of Wednesday morning two Australian men convicted for drug   trafficking in Indonesia were executed by firing squad. According to reports, they — along with the six other prisoners who were executed — declined their blindfolds and sang the hymn Amazing Grace moments before the gunshots were fired.

The Bali 9 case has attracted much public attention in Australia and abroad. Apparently because Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran spent ten years in prison, the Australian government (and, indeed, many Australian and international observers) contended that the Indonesian legal system and government should have shown mercy and compassion. This was particularly the case because, in the words of Lindsay Sandiford (a fellow prisoner on death row), Chan and Sukumaran ‘introduced the concept of rehabilitation to a prison that never had it before.’

Many feel that official and diplomatic requests for clemency were denied because politics trumped justice. Imposing the death penalty for offences involving drug dealers has wide public support in Indonesia. Indeed, the Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s position on the death penalty has been framed as ‘an obsession with being seen to be a tough guy in front of a domestic audience.’ The often-cited mantra explaining this stance is that Indonesia takes a hardline on drug offences because over thirty Indonesians die daily as a result of drug use.

Beyond the domestic arena the case has arguably provided diplomatic leverage for the Indonesian government. Many believe the President’s reluctance to pardon the men was because the case provided the opportunity for Indonesia to flex some diplomatic muscle. Perhaps this in part explains why Chan and Sukumaran were the only prisoners denied their right to spiritual counsel until shortly before their deaths. Some two days after the executions the Indonesian ambassador expressed sympathy to the men’s families, but he also used the opportunity to reiterate that Chan and Sukumaran’s deaths should serve as reminder to deter any would-be drug smugglers in Indonesia.

Indonesia’s nationalistic stance on the death penalty is apparent in that Indonesia lobbies for its citizens on death row in other countries while it prioritises the execution of foreigners held in Indonesian jails. According to Endy Bayuni, Senior Editor of The Jakarta Post, ‘executions have now been turned into a question of Indonesia’s national pride with accusations flying about the West imposing its human rights values on us. But, as the saying goes, the harder they push, the stronger Indonesia pushes back.’

Yet, if imposing the death penalty is ‘good politics’ in Indonesia, opposing the death penalty in Australia is good politics too.

It remains unclear why the Australia Federal Police (AFP) tipped off their Indonesian counterparts. Labor has accused the Coalition government of being responsible for removing the safeguards that would have prevented the AFP’s actions. This is something that politicians like Clive Palmer and Nick Xenophon, among others, believe should be addressed.

As we try to grapple with the aftermath of this incident, it is important that we broaden our focus. The Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott branded the executions as ‘cruel and unnecessary.’ Could the same be said of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers? Indeed, as Macguire points out, Indonesia is being criticised for breaching its human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—the very same convention Australia is in breach of in relation to its policies towards asylum seekers.

And how should Australians respond to this incident? There have been calls for Australians to boycott travelling to Indonesia, a popular tourist destination. But we must also pause to consider what we will make of the other countries that invoke the death penalty: India, the US, China, and Vietnam, to name just a few. If our concern is with the barbarity of this act, we should also pause to consider why our concern has largely been focused on the two Australians when six other men met the same fate (one of whom was Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia). What of the other 130 prisoners on death row in Indonesia? As with the Peter Greste case, will we forget our dismay, our anger, and our frustration that justice has not been served once an Australian is no longer involved?

This concern for prisoners should not be bounded by geography. For example, what do we make of the high proportion of Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia? While the death penalty can by no means be equated with these situations, surely greater efforts should be made to stop these preventable deaths, something that the Australian government has the direct ability to do.

It is also a prime opportunity to reconsider who decides whose lives are worthy of mourning. For, as Cole explains, ‘[m]oments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions…We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain … deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.’ In the wake of Chan and Sukumaran’s execution in Indonesia, the mass beheadings of Christians by IS, the Charlie Hebdo attack in France, the Garissa University massacre in Kenya, the death of Freddy Gray in the US, among many other incidents, reflecting on whose lives we deem to matter is vital.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.