Chan and Sukumaran: the hunt for blame

By 29 April, 2015Personal Blog

The response to the impending execution of “Bali 9” pair Chan and Sukumaran has been charged with emotion, fuelled by intense media coverage. It is certainly a tragedy that two young Australians have been executed in a foreign country. However, in what appears to be a hunt for blame, some important aspects of this case have been either overlooked or ignored.

As the planned execution drew closer, the “human interest” coverage has been immense – stories about their families, and the efforts made to advocate on their behalf from all circles and at all levels. Most of the stories had all but forgotten why they were in this predicament in the first place. They were elevated to hero status, with an entire country going into bat to save them, and grieving for their terrible situation. After they were killed this morning, the front page of the online Age showed their photos and years of birth and death, in obituaries fit for a head of state!

Then there were the stories with details of how the execution would take place, focussing largely on how barbaric it was: by firing squad with some guns firing blanks, an option to have their heads cloaked or directly face their shooters, and the awful contingency of a shot to the head if the initial burst of fire did not kill them. More stories about the conditions leading up to the execution – with no “final meal”, and the possibility that pastoral care would be denied. The latest update in the “rolling coverage” (is that Australian for “developing story”?) is that the prisoners sang as they were shot, and that Australian has recalled its ambassador.

The raw facts are simple: two Australian citizens have committed a crime – smuggling drugs – in a foreign country well known for its harsh penalties, and have been executed for that crime.

Yet I am struck by the way we have – often hypocritically – sought to lay the blame everywhere except on the perpetrators. Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson called on the Australian government to prevent the executions as a breach of human rights under international law. He urged our government to spell out the consequences of the execution for the Indonesia. I couldn’t help but think that their very execution is a direct consequence of their own actions, the consequences of which were very clearly stated by Indonesia to all foreign visitors.

Yes, there is a clear disparity in the justice systems between our two countries that is the heart of the matter. We do not have the death penalty. Advocates go further: even if someone would allow for the death penalty in the justice system, it should be reserved for the worst of crimes – aggravated murder or terrorism – but not “lesser offences” like trafficking in drugs. Portraying their execution as ‘barbaric’ is a cynical pull on the heart strings that is almost racist. Would people object if the method was by lethal injection? Or if it happened in a first world country?

So who can we blame? The Indonesian government, who have a serious drug problem and have chosen, as have other countries in the region, very harsh penalties for those crimes? Or perhaps we should demean their justice system as “barbaric”? Should we declare their system ineffectual because the mules are the ones who get caught and punished while the “king-pins” remain free? How about having a go at the Australian Federal Police? They collaborate with foreign countries to prevent drugs coming to Australia, and some of those countries have the death penalty. But to what extent must they consider the consequences of Australians committing crimes abroad? If they were more lenient or were unable to secure the co-operation of foreign agencies, would we also be blaming them for a glut of drugs that arrived on our shores?

As a regular listener to Triple J, I was surprised at the way this case has polarized younger people. On the one hand, they are politically toward the left and therefore against the death penalty. But on the other hand, they are usually just one or two degrees of separation from someone whose life has been seriously damaged by drugs. This case has torn many people. Amongst all the coverage, I’ve not seen many stories about the impact of drugs in society, and the success or otherwise of our fight against drug importation.
We can hunt for blame wherever we want, but we should not forget that Chan and Sukumaran were criminals who sought to profit from trade in drugs, and were executed for crimes they chose to commit despite the huge risks. While that sounds insensitive, it is true. They were not heroes and their lives and deaths should not be romanticised.
This debate is about one thing: proportionality of justice systems. It’s not whether or not they committed a crime, but what punishment is appropriate for that crime. In amongst your compassion for these two, make sure you spare a thought for hundreds of Australians who die from drug overdoses each year.
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