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22 December 2014
by Duncan Graham

Australian-Indonesian relations threatened by executions

Andrew Chan, 30, and Myuran Sukumaran, 33.

Barring a political somersault our northern neighbour is heading for major diplomatic confrontations with Australia and other Western nations as it enforces the death penalty for drug trafficking.

New President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has categorically refused to intervene in cases where the courts have ordered executions. Speaking at a university forum in Central Java in December he said: "I guarantee that there will be no clemency for convicts who commit narcotics-related crimes."

Consequently five are expected to face the firing squad this year and 20 in 2015. The first batch is reportedly all Indonesians, but the next group could include Australians Andrew Chan, 30, and Myuran Sukumaran, 33. The two men, members of the Bali Nine drug syndicate caught in 2005 and sentenced in 2006, have exhausted all appeals.

Australia is a world leader in opposing capital punishment and would be duty bound to protest strenuously against the execution of its nationals.

In a final bid to keep their lives, Chan and Sukumaran sought clemency from former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). He ducked the issue and retired in October.

To the dismay of human rights activists who expected Jokowi to be more sensitive to moral matters, the new president seems determined to look as hairy-chested as his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

During a brutal election campaign the civilian Jokowi was labelled weak against his rival, former army hard man Prabowo Subianto. Although SBY was a general before entering politics he dithered on decisions concerning religious conflict and drug penalties, leading the electorate to start baying for firmness in its new leader.

During his two five-year terms SBY commuted some death penalties and imposed a four-year moratorium on executions. Law reformers thought this marked the end of the death penalty and the start of a more nuanced approach to punishment.

It was a false dawn. The firing squads' M16s were cocked five times in 2013 as SBY reacted to claims he was soft on criminals. Even his former vice president Jusuf Kalla (now holding the same position under Jokowi) allegedly said SBY "was loved by drug traffickers for his leniency."

Paroling so-called 'Ganja Queen' Schapelle Corby in February 2014 cheered her Australian supporters but won SBY no applause in his homeland.

Druggies aren't the only ones to take the brunt of Jokowi's determination to prove he's really Rambo in batik. Foreign fishing boats dropping their lines in Indonesian waters have also been in the President's sights; literally, as the offending vessels have been used as target practice by the navy.

Curiously terrorism doesn't get the same brutal treatment. Jokowi has spoken publicly about taking "softer religious and cultural approaches" as these were better tools in eradicating terrorism than the "security approach". He declined to elaborate.

There's no sophisticated debate on the death penalty in Muslim-majority Indonesia where State-sanctioned killings don't arouse the abhorrence felt in Europe and Australasia. Even concerns about the innocent dying through flaws in a notoriously corrupt judicial system are muted. Capital punishment is accepted as a just and effective deterrent though the facts say otherwise.

SBY's moratorium ended in 2013 with five well-publicised executions. That year British grandma Lindsay Sandiford, 58, was caught carrying almost five kilos of cocaine. She is also on death row in Bali.

Despite the prominently advertised penalties drug arrests continue to be commonplace with the alleged criminals pictured before cakes of contraband while cops in balaclavas look on.

One of the latest is Kiwi pensioner Antony de Malmanche, 53, caught in Bali in early December allegedly carrying 1.7 kilos of methamphetamine. He too could be torn apart by fragmenting bullets if convicted.

Indonesian executions are horrific. In 2008 Catholic priest Charlie Burrows supported two Nigerians facing a midnight firing squad in Central Java. He later told a Constitutional Court challenge to the death penalty that the men bled and moaned for seven minutes after being shot from a metre away by a dozen policemen armed with assault rifles.

The hooded drug traffickers had been tied to crucifixes with car inner tubes. A target had been put over their hearts by a doctor (presumably breaking the Hippocratic Oath) who did not pronounce them dead till ten minutes after the gunfire ceased.

A Sydney Morning Herald report of Father Burrows' testimony quoted the priest saying: "I think it is cruel, the torture."

Death for druggies is a simplistically attractive solution to a social evil that's well entrenched in Indonesia, but President Jokowi may soon face the dilemma that so troubled his gun-happy predecessors. Indonesia has more than four million workers overseas, with 280 on death rows in countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Some of these people are young maids accused of murdering their bosses. Their defence of responding to employer rape has little impact in Arab states. Indonesian diplomats pleading a stay of the sword on behalf of their citizens find the going tough when reminded that their own country also lacks compassion.

Despite defeating the colonial Dutch for independence in a bloody four-year conflict, and running the world's third largest democracy, Indonesians retain a strange sense of international inferiority: Banging the nationalist drum always rouses a parade.

Shelling a Vietnamese fishing boat for TV news, or shredding the torsos of Australian drug runners will go down a treat with Indonesian voters, particularly if the folk next door are enraged. Snubbing mercy pleas by Tony Abbott will damage relations between the neighbours but do Jokowi's image at home no harm at all.