Netanyahu’s speech to US congress; Nemtsov's death blow to hopes of change in Russia. By Hamish McDonald.

Foreigners fall guys as Joko stands firm

Mourners surround the coffin of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow this week.
Mourners surround the coffin of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov in Moscow this week.

Barring some miraculous change of mind in Jakarta, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are likely to be spending their last days of life as you pick up this newspaper, ahead of being taken out one midnight hour and shot by a firing squad, along with four or five other foreigners and four Indonesians. They will have had three days’ notice to think about it in their isolation cells.

Joko Widodo, the president who is refusing clemency applications from drug convicts without giving any consideration to their merits or otherwise, has gone down inestimably in regard outside Indonesia from the high hopes that followed his election last July. As many as 54 other drug convicts are lined up on death row. By Widodo’s logic, he will have to keep up the pace of executions throughout coming months − otherwise a pause will strengthen the impression the January and March executions are just a law-and-order diversion from his political troubles.

The majority of those on death row for drug offences are foreigners. None except Chan and Sukumaran are Australian, but Jakarta can be sure of continued diplomatic fallout. One is British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford, convicted of smuggling a large amount of cocaine into Bali. Imagine how the London tabloids are going to handle that.

If Widodo really thinks 4.5 million Indonesians are hooked on drugs, surely he can’t believe a few dozen foreigners  ran the local distribution networks? The answer must be that foreigners are the fall guys who can’t work the famous “legal mafia” system (corrupt police, prosecutors and judges) to get lighter sentences, and that the drug trade gets a lot of police protection.

If the gruesome execution scenario is played out, our best response is dignified condemnation and no talk of the “consequences” that Tony Abbott raised in one of his rash comments. We should send an aircraft to bring back the bodies to the families. We should thank and praise those Indonesian lawyers, journalists and public figures who did their best to halt the process. We should support criminology in the region to counter the punitive approach. We should offer high-tech intelligence for a common fight against the pernicious methamphetamine industry in particular. And we should speak up against the death penalty more consistently, not just when Australians are concerned, and not be too self-righteous. What government here would dare to hold a referendum on capital punishment?

1 . Netanyahu’s speech to congress

Even Bibi can show a touch of embarrassment, it seems. Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint sitting of the US congress on Tuesday came with touching professions that it wasn’t meant to show disdain for Barack Obama or any willingness to drive a partisan wedge into American foreign policy (“I regret that some see my appearance here as political”), or that it had anything to do with Israel’s election due two weeks later.

With the nuclear negotiations between Iran and six big powers including the United States coming down to the wire at the end of this month, the question now is whether the Republican-controlled congress will derail whatever agreement is reached. From the indications given out by Secretary of State John Kerry, it looks as if Iran will be held to a 10- to 15-year cap on its uranium enrichment capability in return for lifting economic sanctions. Frequent and intrusive inspections will give ample warning of any move to “break out” and build a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu says the Iranians can’t be trusted not to cheat, and the agreement almost guarantees Tehran will have a bomb at the expiry of the cap. Hold out until Tehran “changes its behaviour” on all fronts, and keep up the sanctions squeeze until it agrees to “a better deal”. Iran may be the “enemy of your enemy” (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) but it’s still the enemy of the US. He’s no longer demanding “zero” nuclear facilities in Iran, though he still expects regime change.

Netanyahu’s speech to congressmen and senators produced no fewer than 26 standing ovations. It might be expected that numbers will be found to vote for legislation intensifying sanctions on Iran. Obama can veto that, but there may be problems lifting existing sanctions.

But if the six powers do get a deal with Iran and the congress does rally behind the president, as it tends to do on security issues, what then for Bibi? As Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz this week: “Despite its flaws, the proposed agreement is far from bad for Israel – the only nuclear power in the Middle East – but it is very bad for Netanyahu. The agreement offers Israel almost a generation, or even more if it succeeds, in which Netanyahu won’t be able to sow fear about Iran as an existential danger. It would leave Netanyahu as a leader whose raison d’être has been taken away from him.”

Obama and Kerry, who both detest Netanyahu and, according to Washington, would dearly like to see him out of power, no doubt hope to clinch a deal with Iran before the Israeli elections on March 17. Netanyahu will be hoping they don’t. Our leaders have been silent on the issue, but Julie Bishop has scheduled a visit to Iran next month, clearly hoping to position Australia for deals when sanctions are lifted.

2 . Another death blow to hopes of change

The assassination of former Russian vice-premier Boris Nemtsov raises the tantalising what-might-have-been scenario had the ailing Boris Yeltsin tapped him for the leadership succession instead of Vladimir Putin at the end of the turbulent 1990s.

Instead of a cold and power-hungry former secret policeman, Russia would have had an attractive liberal, a former engineer who had turned his home province, Nizhny Novgorod, from a closed zone of the Soviet military-industrial complex into a model of opened-up reform for the entire country.

At 55, Nemtsov was seven years younger than Putin and again emerging as a potential alternative. Putin says he was no threat (implicitly saying no need to take him out). But Nemtsov was promising to reveal evidence of the involvement of regular Russian soldiers in the territorial grab in Ukraine. Putin and his close henchmen may not have given the direct order to kill. The level of hate propaganda against oppositionists and tolerance of vigilantism in Moscow was enough. However, it’s surely more than a coincidence that CCTV cameras covering the spot, next to the Kremlin walls, where a gunman shot Nemtsov four times in the back, were not working.

Putin is often said to hark back to Soviet times, when he was a fast-rising officer in the KGB. But even the KGB was not as crude and blatant as this. The killings go on: the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the human rights activists Stanislav Markelov and Natalia Estemirova, the renegade intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, the corruption-fighting lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and now Nemtsov. You can only marvel that there are still thousands of Russians coming out in opposition to Putin.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 7, 2015 as "Foreigners fall guys as Joko stands firm".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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