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The executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran end a 10-year struggle between quiet advocacy and Indonesian sovereignty. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside the fight to save Bali Nine’s Chan and Sukumaran

Supporters of Andrew Chan hold a candlelight vigil at the port opposite Nusakambangan island.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

In the end there was love and slaughter, and both were acts of defiance. The eight condemned were marched to wooden crosses, each singing “Amazing Grace” as communion and ballast. Their singing defied hate and nihilism, while the rifles defied international repulsion. The men were secured to their posts with cable ties, and targets were pinned to their chests. None chose a blindfold – more graceful defiance. Instead, they stared at their killers, men vetted for mental fortitude but perhaps unprepared for their victims’ unmasked faces. Did the conviction of the executioners falter before their targets’ faces? Or did they avoid them, focusing only on the bull’s-eyes? 

Contrary to their fate, the previous 48 hours were busy for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. They hadn’t resigned. Impending death is presumably paralytic, but these two were in a hurry to exercise love and praise. Chan married his girlfriend Febyanti Herewila, and we may now respect the gesture and admonish its truncation. He prayed with and counselled fellow inmates awaiting execution. Meanwhile, Sukumaran, who for the past decade has been finessing his art, made four paintings. A member of the legal team that has laboured for the pair this past decade, Julian McMahon, carried them outside. One was of a heart, a symbol of hope but also a terrible reminder of the sentence. Others were expressionistic and tortured self-portraits, his body contorted in one, his heart missing in another, replaced by a black hole. They declared anguish, but also a startling maturation of his work. Sukumaran had industriously developed his talent. They would come to bear traces of his friend and mentor, artist Ben Quilty. “In my life I’ve only ever seen one other artist make this seismic progress at such dizzying pace,” Quilty said. Painting was something Sukumaran never relaxed. Not even on the eve of his death. 

But the end came, a little after midnight local time, on a tiny island reserved for killing. A nearby tent accommodated the families of some of the condemned. As the shots rang out the tent filled with screams. Priests bore witness. State-appointed doctors confirmed the men’s deaths. One of the lawyers for the Australians tweeted, “I have failed.” A long, tireless and diplomatically sophisticated legal effort was finally exhausted. The volumes of work and wearying emotional investment of the lawyers has scarcely been mentioned these past months. But multiple conversations I’ve had have confirmed that the work – and personal cost – was considerable. 

The previous evening, in Australia, vigils were held. Brigid Delaney, one of two co-founders for the Mercy campaign, organised one in Sydney’s Martin Place on Tuesday night. Musicians played, the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson spoke. Those gathered sung “Amazing Grace” and lit candles. “There was sadness,” Delaney says. “It’s weird – how to mourn for someone who’s not yet dead?” 

Six years ago, Delaney and Matthew Goldberg founded the Mercy campaign to advocate for clemency, with the assistance of Reprieve Australia. Through discussions with friends, they realised specific advocacy was not being made outside of the Australian government and lawyers. Human rights NGO Amnesty International was making appeals but, as Delaney tells me, it was a blanket anti-capital punishment appeal. A specific campaign for Chan and Sukumaran – targeted at Indonesians as much as Australians – didn’t exist. “It wasn’t about getting them out of jail,” Delaney says. “We know they had committed crimes, and should serve time. But there was a compelling case for rehabilitation. We felt there was no reason not to grant clemency.” 

Delaney and Goldberg approached the families of the two men, and received their endorsement. They have been in touch with the pair’s family and friends ever since. It was always a small operation, and others came to offer their services free. A web designer first, later an advocate in Indonesia. A website was made, which contained an archive of news stories and words from the two condemned men. A petition was started, eventually attracting more than 250,000 signatures. By this time, Delaney and Goldberg had flown to Indonesia to meet Chan and Sukumaran. “Our tone had to be right,” Delaney says. “Respectful. And we wanted Indonesia involved. So we couldn’t be insulting. We started using words like ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion’ and ‘second chance’, which I think people were thirsty to hear, because there’s so much ugly, punitive language around capital punishment.” 

The importance of tone and language was obvious to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as well, and the department quietly briefed sections of the media on the case over the years. DFAT well understood how high were the stakes, and how easily provocation could occur. But they weren’t sure that everybody else knew it. Their advice was simple. Do not be inflammatory. Do not insult, threaten or cajole. Do not condescend. This is a very delicate situation, and we cannot appear to be strong-arming the Indonesian government because it will have the opposite effect. They will be intransigent. DFAT explained that the Indonesian press and government scours Australian media, and that it was crucial then to understand the fragile dynamics.

It was something Prime Minister Tony Abbott failed to heed when he invoked the aid Australia had provided to Indonesia after the 2005 tsunami. It was a vulgar attempt at inducing gratitude, and the Indonesian government resented it. “Those comments were massively counterproductive,” Dave McRae, an Indonesia expert at the University of Melbourne and the Lowy Institute, tells me.

The tone was just as bad in a video released 24 hours before the executions, entitled “Save Our Boys, Mr Abbott.” It was a compilation of celebrity appeals to their laptop cameras. It was also a nauseating example of moral vanity. For four minutes, clips of happy saviours demanded that Abbott “do something”. One appeal claimed “Mr Abbott, the time for diplomacy is over”, which was a conveniently shortened logic, but unfurled would commit the prime minister to an act of war. It did not know, or care, that the majority of diplomacy happens behind closed doors – and that the louder the chorus of opposition in Australia, the greater the domestic profit Joko Widodo received in defying it. Nor did it seem to understand the limits of our government’s power, preferring infantile fantasies about its vitality. “Tony, if you had any courage and compassion, you’d get over to Indonesia and bring these two boys home,” the actor Brendan Cowell said down camera. “Show some balls.” 

The morning after

It’s painful that I’m speaking to Delaney the morning after. Her campaign has failed, through no lack of effort. She is subdued. A journalist for Guardian Australia, she must also consider her full-time work. That means writing about the executions. “People are horrified by what happened overnight,” she tells me. “There’s probably a generation of kids who sat through this and will be the next generation of activists.” 

The following morning, Prime Minister Abbott announced the withdrawal of Australia’s Indonesian ambassador in light of the “cruel and unnecessary” act. The withdrawal was described as unprecedented, and so it is, but it was also expected. Indonesia will be neither surprised nor troubled. 

“The withdrawal is a waste of time,” former foreign affairs minister Bob Carr says. “What the Indonesians have done is mightily offensive to us, but there is nothing we can do about it now. The withdrawal is a lazy response. We need more, not less, engagement. We have a very heavy regional agenda: irregular migration, counterterror, human rights issues in Papua, the South China Sea, and encouraging Indonesian leadership in the Muslim world. This is challenging stuff. And we’ve decided to pull the ambassador out in the midst of this? Well, for how long? And if we return him in two or three months, well, I say to you: So what? You can’t run foreign policy on public rhetoric.”

Dave McRae felt differently. “I’m disappointed by the withdrawal because I think we could have done more,” he tells me. “It’s a symbolic step that Indonesia would have expected. Whatever our response, it obviously needs to balance our relationship with Indonesia with our opposition to the death penalty. So I think there were other options for suspension. Certainly not aid, which should never be politicised. But we could have made law enforcement co-operation conditional on capital punishment not being applied when that co-operation occurs.”

McRae was touching upon the dubious involvement of the Australian Federal Police, and their notifying Indonesian authorities of the trafficking group in 2005. The AFP had options to warn off the young Australians leaving the country, or arresting them on Australian soil. They chose neither. Bob Carr tells me that the AFP must give an explanation of their actions. 

“Seems to be on the face of it grounds for some serious explanation,” he says. “It doesn’t seem as if they were thinking several steps ahead. Why were these boys served up into a jurisdiction that applies capital punishment? I’m not calling for an investigation, but I think they have so far failed to explain themselves adequately.”

Independent senator Nick Xenophon has signalled that he will raise the matter in senate estimates hearings this month. 

Joko’s great promise

In July last year, the governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo – or “Jokowi” – was democratically elected president of Indonesia. There was great fanfare. Jokowi, who was inaugurated in October, was feted as the “Obama of Asia” – a moderate with no military ties and a mandate to focus upon domestic issues. “There was so much hope,” Delaney says. “Jokowi was on the cover of Time, he was celebrated, he seemed fresh and sincere. We thought it would be great for our mercy campaign.”

Carr had, as foreign minister, met Jokowi, while the Indonesian was still governor of Jakarta. Carr considered him strangely ignorant of Australia and the region. “I found him to be deeply incurious,” Carr tells me. “He had no interest in the region. He didn’t use his meeting to inquire about us. I can tell you that if the roles were reversed – if I was premier of New South Wales meeting the Indonesian foreign minister, I would be interrogating him about local dynamics.”

Jokowi’s honeymoon was short lived. Elected to ennoble Indonesian sovereignty and clean up corruption, Jokowi’s popularity plummeted when he nominated corruption suspect Budi Gunawan to head the national police force. 

“Jokowi has a dysfunctional relationship with his party,” McRae tells me. “They expect to influence him. His worst decisions have come as a result of placating the party – such as proposing a tainted candidate for police chief. When the anti-corruption institution there – the KPK, a much-admired organisation – objected, the police retaliated by filing apparent trumped-up charges against the KPK’s leadership.” 

In December last year, Jokowi gave a landmark speech. It signalled a hitherto largely unseen ruthlessness. In it, Jokowi invoked the “drug emergency” to announce that the executions of drug convicts would be going ahead. 

“That lecture was bizarre,” Delaney remembers. “He talks about murder. I couldn’t believe it. I had to read it four times. It was incomprehensible. And then things moved quickly from there.”

McRae was surprised also. “Jokowi was always expected to be more overtly nationalist, but I don’t think anyone predicted capital punishment to be the issue,” he says. “He never mentioned it in his campaign. I’ve searched through his statements. There’s nothing I’ve seen. When he was campaigning last year, human rights activists were hopeful. But that hasn’t been the case. Jokowi has actually intensified the number of executions. There have been 14 in just over six months. Previously, Indonesia has averaged roughly two executions per year. There were less in the full 10 years of his predecessor’s term. Personally,
I think these executions are a shortcut to look tough against the so-called ‘drug emergency’. That rhetoric has cut-through. Jokowi uses the statistic that 50 Indonesians die every day because of drugs, and that figure has been thoroughly discredited, but he keeps using it. He’s unperturbed.” 

The gentleman had become the strong man. His rhetoric sharpened. He was committing himself. And among Indonesian hardliners, suspicion about Australia’s position was easy to find. When Abbott declared respect for Indonesian sovereignty, they thought about the espionage revelations and the breaches of their maritime borders during a tow-back operation. When we denounced capital punishment, they remembered our support for it being applied to the Bali bombers. That said, Jokowi was equally intransigent with all affected countries – France, Brazil, the Philippines. 

“Certainly the Indonesians noted our support for the death penalty for the Bali terrorists,” McRae tells me. “It’s made our advocacy more controversial. But before the Philippine reprieve [of Mary Jane Veloso], I hadn’t seen any evidence that other countries had been more or less effective. Indonesia has consistently rebuffed all of them.”

The writing had been on the wall for some time. 

Hypocrisy and inconsistencies

There is a reckoning to be had with our sorrow. We assume that public mourning is natural, unmediated and proportionate to the tragedy observed. We hate to think that a central passion might be fickle or manipulated. We condemn barbarism and cruelty, and feel morally distinguished in our expression. We may even feel – perhaps correctly – that an overwhelming majority of Australians are now intractably opposed to capital punishment. But there is great evidence for how malleable our passions are. Chan and Sukumaran were condemned to death nine years ago, and during that period – dramatically marked by confession, contrition and appeals – there were long fallow periods where their plight did not register with us. 

“There were frustrating periods,” Delaney says, “where people weren’t much interested. They need to be in imminent peril for people to take an interest.” 

When Australian Van Nguyen was executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in 2005 – the same year the Bali Nine were arrested – there was little sympathy. The wheels of Singaporean justice turn rapidly, and there was no time for a campaign, much less a popular blossoming of sympathy. Nguyen was unknown to us but for his crime. Then South Australian premier Mike Rann called him “one of a number of people who want to peddle death to our young people and make money out of it and it doesn’t come much lower than that… Drug dealers in my view are murderers.” 

It is unthinkable that a prominent politician might say something similar of the late Chan and Sukumaran. But not back then. Rann was re-elected three months later. Yet it is difficult to accept that we have experienced a collective shift on the issue, rather our sympathies have flowered via a late – but significant – attention to the two. Almost every night, for months now, Chan and Sukumaran’s story of redemption washed our living rooms. Punitive instincts gave way to gentler assessments and meditations on mercy and rehabilitation. How much, we can’t say. A decade’s passing since their arrest meant we could fold spiritual maturation into their narrative – the development from callow drug traffickers to a respected painter and pastor. We will never know Nguyen’s capacity for change. 

There are other inconsistencies. Last year, the Australian National University released the latest chapter in its longitudinal study of political opinion. It recorded that in 2013 almost half of Australians supported the death penalty for murder. And in 2007, regarding the impending execution of the Bali bombers, then prime minister John Howard said on behalf of Australians: “I think there would be a sense of letdown if that was the sentence delivered, but not carried out.” 

Opposition leader Kevin Rudd agreed, veering from established Labor policy and braiding his opinion with Howard’s. So politically toxic was opposing the death penalty in this instance that Rudd publicly shamed his foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland, for merely restating the ALP’s opposition to capital punishment. “Insensitive in the extreme,” was Rudd’s judgement of McClelland’s comments. 

While our condemnation of capital punishment this week has been unqualified, privately it clearly is. Our opposition will depend on the crime, the victim, the perpetrator and our connection – however mediated – to the convicted. Public sentiment is a nebulous thing, protean and difficult to measure. Perhaps opposition to the death penalty has broadened. But to consider the public’s opinion as a simple, fossilised thing is to ignore our history of contradictions. 

There is, finally, a question about our imagination, which is the engine of sympathy. We were not asked to consider Chan and Sukumaran’s potential for rehabilitation, because we actually witnessed it. It ceased to be an abstraction. But for others – such as Nguyen – we have to imagine a latent capacity, for they were killed before they could demonstrate it. To remove this opportunity is the basest cruelty, but it also means the soil for our sympathy is much shallower. We are asked to plead a principle, rather than the safer task of recognising observable redemption. How many can do this? Perhaps – we may hope – more people this week than last.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Inside the fight to save Bali pair". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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