Aussies on death row in Bali stir the nation. Will final appeal work?

Drug dealers or not, Australian Prime Minister Abbot says the death penalty is 'barbaric.' Indonesians say the louder that Aussies protest the more likely the two men will face the firing squad. 

Firdia Lisnawati/AP/File
Australian death-row prisoners Myuran Sukumaran (r.) and Andrew Chan (l.) stand in front of their cell during an Indonesian Independence Day celebration at Kerobokan prison in Bali, Indonesia, Aug. 17, 2011.

Two Australian members of a drug syndicate arrested on the Indonesia island of Bali a decade ago could face a firing squad in days if a last minute legal appeal fails. The situation has angered many Australians who abhor the death penalty, and has caused a small row between the Pacific nations. 

Hundreds of people gathered in Sydney’s Martin Place this week to hold a candlelit music vigil for the convicted men, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, with organizers hoping it will send a message to the Indonesian authorities not to go ahead with the execution.

If Mr. Chan and Mr. Sukumaran lose their appeals they will be the first Australians to be executed since 2002, when Singapore put a convicted Australian drug smuggler to death by hanging. Australia abolished the death penalty in 1973.

Even with all conventional legal avenues exhausted, lawyers for the two men are still applying for a judicial review. They lost a review in 2010 and Indonesia's Constitutional and Supreme Court are at loggerheads over whether a second review is allowable.

Despite his reputation as a moderate and a reformer, Indonesia’s new president Joko Widodo has made it clear that he is staying out of the daily fray, but is not ready to compromise on the death penalty for drug offenders. He has public opinion in his country firmly on his side.

"Every day we have 50 people die because of narcotics, of drugs. In one year, it's 18,000 people who die because of narcotics. We are not going to compromise for drug dealers. No compromise. No compromise,” he said in an interview with CNN earlier this week.

Successive Australian governments have had to walk a fine line – publicly opposing the death penalty under any circumstances while being careful not to be seen as bullying their closest Asian neighbor and important trading partner.

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, ruling out what he called “megaphone diplomacy,” continues to say his government is doing everything to stop the “barbaric executions.”

Countering in the The Jakarta Post last week, senior editor Endy Bayuni said a loud or aggressive diplomatic intervention may do more harm than good. “The 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.”

Chan and Sukumaran were arrested at Bali’s international airport in 2005 trying to smuggle more than 17 pounds of heroin into Australia.  Seven other members of the drug ring arrested at the same time are serving lengthy prison sentences.

Earlier this month Indonesia executed six convicted drug traffickers despite appeals from Brazil and The Netherlands to spare the lives of their nationals.

Families and supporters of the two Australians say they have accepted their guilt and have used their decade in jail to reform themselves and other prisoners.

Sukumaran has become a portrait painter and is being mentored by the well-known Australian artist Ben Quilty while completing a fine arts degree by correspondence.

Mr. Quilty, one of the vigil’s organizers, said he accepted that there was little hope for the two men but he wanted to show Sukumaran and Chan that they are not alone.

"It seemed like there was a very dark inevitability about what was going to happen to Myuran. And I thought, 'What can I do?,'” he said.

Melbourne pastor Christie Buckingham, who has made regular visits to the men in Kerobakan jail in Bali, says they have developed drug rehabilitation programs that can be replicated in other jails.

“They are in a unique position to train and rehabilitate others and it would be futile to shoot them especially as they have provision [under the law] that allows for these men to be reformed and that’s what they are,” she says

“Execution is not the answer, because execution will just kill two men and five minutes later you’ll have someone else doing the same thing. They need to educate, they need to rehabilitate and they need to skill some of the people who are in prison and will be released.”

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