The media curtain-raisers for Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to Australia focused on trade and visas. Human rights activists were hoping the agenda might include the fate of the five surviving Bali Nine. One is Martin Stephens.
The convicted Australian Bali Nine drug mule fears he’ll die inside an Indonesian jail unless President Widodo orders clemency.
Stephens claims he can do more good in the community warning of the dangers of drugs than being held as an example of the Indonesian government’s war on drugs.
In 2011 Stephens appealed for his life sentence to be dropped to ten years arguing he’s contrite, will never re-offend and wants to help rehabilitate others. The appeal was rejected.
“I did wrong,” he said in the Malang (East Java) prison. “It was my big mistake. I’m asking for a second chance. I’d never been convicted before of any crime.
“I’ve been locked up for almost 15 years. My wife and daughter are struggling. (He married Indonesian Christine Puspayanti in 2011.)
“My parents in Australia are doing it hard because of me. I want to care for them. Why should they keep paying for my first fault? What’s served by keeping me behind bars? I want to be a good citizen and contribute.
”I’m borderline autistic. That caused problems when I was a kid. I was an angry boy but never a bully. I stood up for others. My best friend was my talking cockatoo Charlie.
“Now I’m more mature. I’ve learned the hard way. I got out of my depth. I’m hard on myself. I’ve always taken responsibility for my mistakes. I’m proud of that.”
Stephens, now 43, was a bartender in Wollongong when recruited by the infamous Bali Nine gang attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin worth about AUD 4 million to Sydney through Denpasar’s Ngurah Rai airport. The eight men and one woman were snared in a 2005 joint Indonesian Police and Australian Federal Police (AFP) operation.
Vietnamese-Australian Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen was given life imprisonment. He died of stomach cancer in 2018.
Stephens is the only member of the surviving five outside Bali. He was shifted from Bali’s Kerobokan Jail to Malang with Nguyen in 2014. At the time it was widely reported the men were sent to East Java because they’d ‘violated prison rules’.
Stephens denies this vigorously: “I asked to be moved to be closer to my wife and apart from the others. I don’t want to know them. I wasn’t in their syndicate which made earlier drug runs. I’ve always been known as the Bali Nine black sheep.”
Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop unsuccessfully proposed prisoner swaps when Chan and Sukumaran faced the firing squad. Australia does not have the death penalty.
Stephens said he’d reject an exchange unless compelled: “I’m much freer here than I would be in an Australian jail, though logically it would be better for my parents.
“I’m the only white Western Christian among about 3,000 prisoners and I’m treated well. Malang has different rules. It’s one hundred per cent better than Kerobokan.
“I have no complaints about the Australian government and the AFP which saved my life. If I’d been caught in Sydney and confessed the drug syndicate would have had me killed. (Some prisoners’ relatives have criticized the AFP for tipping off their Bali counterparts so arrests were made in Indonesia which has harsher penalties.)
“Consular staff are good. They visit regularly and I get a monthly allowance of AUD 125 which I’ll have to repay if released.
“I teach English and play the seruling (traditional bamboo flute) but I haven’t learnt Indonesian. I want to keep my Australian identity and avoid getting involved in faction fighting.”
Apart from skin sores which are being medicated, Stephens looks physically healthy, striding through crowds of shuffling prisoners like a man with purpose. He says his family and faith sustain him, though he criticizes church “hypocrites” who promise to help but don’t deliver.
Although he gets distressed recounting his life he says he’s never contemplated suicide: “That’s not me. I couldn’t do that to my parents. I love them too much.
“So many lies have been told about me. No-one sees your struggles – only your errors. Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance?”
Townsville Catholic Bishop Tim Harris has been publicly appealing for mercy for the five prisoners. Two (Scott Rush and Michael Czugaj) were former parishioners. He’s visited them in Kerobokan.
“It’s ludicrous that the surviving Bali Nine are in prison,” Bishop Harris said. “(They) were mules … This is a hard road for them and their families.
“I pray for them frequently but I’m powerless really to get our government to up the ante and talk with Indonesia accordingly. I fear that the Bali Nine are a bad dream for our government but that is not good enough.
“These people were so young and are still young. Surely they’ve done their time and learnt their lesson? Bring them home I say. Justice has been served and now mercy must be applied.”
Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.