Tony Kevin, Tony Abbott’s crassness could cost the Bali duo their lives.

Feb 20, 2015


Let me first declare my biases. I believe that I honour and respect Indonesia’s values and culture. I oppose the death penalty in general. In this case, I would welcome an outcome that saved the lives of the last two members of the Bali Nine who now face execution In Indonesia, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, for the offence of smuggling drugs out of Indonesia in 2005. I believe every life saved from deliberate violent death affirms and enriches our collective humanity; and that the quest for consistency of action is the enemy of mercy. I also believe the murky AFP role in the history of the Bali Nine’s arrest as they were leaving Indonesia imposes a special moral obligation on Australia to do everything possible to try to save these two men’s’ lives now.

Now let me comment on the Australian diplomacy surrounding this, as neutrally as I can. Over the years, Australian representations have had much success in securing commutation of sentences of many Australians accused of serious drug offences in Indonesia: most famously Schiapelle Corby, but also (in a very complex legal history – see the other seven members of the Bali Nine. Andrew and Myuran are the last two, and it is their tragedy that their sentences could not be commuted in time under the former President Yudhoyono.

Under President Jokowi, lines have been drawn in the sand. Indonesia’s national honour is now strongly engaged. And Tony Abbott’s ill-judged recent public diplomacy, if it can be called that, has made matters far worse. Abbott has possibly doomed the two men, though I still hope not.

For an informed current Indonesian elite perspective, I turned to Yohanes Sulaiman’s piece in The Conversation yesterday Sulaiman expects Indonesia to ignore protests and execute the two men, because the domestic political costs for Jokowi of granting pardon is too great;   because there is strong elite Indonesian support for the death penalty in major drug cases; and because of a strong nationalist backlash against foreign pressure. Tellingly, Sulaiman cites an Indonesian Professor of International Law’s critique of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s appeal in this case: where, he asks, was Ban when Indonesian migrant workers were executed in Saudi Arabia?

The separate but coordinated appeals on 17 February by all six living former Australian prime ministers might of themselves have had some positive impact on President Jokowi, in light of the drama of the gesture and of Indonesian values of respect for age, wisdom and political seniority. The delay in taking the men to the execution island may have been a guarded initial response to those powerful appeals, from which I recall key words here:

Kevin Rudd – “As a deep, long-standing friend of Indonesia, I would respectfully request an act of clemency.”

Julia Gillard –   “I would find it heartbreaking if such extraordinary efforts to become of good character were not met with an act of mercy.”

John Howard – “Mercy being shown in such circumstances would not weaken the deterrent effect of Indonesia’s strong anti-drug laws.”

Paul Keating – “In this case, the penalty is out of all proportion to the crime.”

Bob Hawke – “I call on the Indonesian government to show mercy and clemency … Justice should be based on human understanding… ”

Malcolm Fraser – “We are very much opposed to the death penalty in Australia.”

Unfortunately, Abbott may have the very next day, 18 February, destroyed this glimmer of hope by his crass and over-the-top linking of past Australian generous disaster relief aid to Indonesia to the fate of the two men. As in the presidential eavesdropping episode, well remembered by Indonesians, he compounded the error by his defiant refusal to admit afterwards that his linkage had been a threat: “No, I was just stating facts”.

Abbott has now left Jokowi in the unpalatable position that any act of clemency could be seen as succumbing to Abbott’s thinly veiled blackmail.

And where does this leave Abbott if Indonesia does execute the men? If Indonesia then experiences a major natural disaster while Abbott is still our PM, will he really announce: ‘No, we won’t help you, because you executed Chan and Sukamaran.”? I don’t think so: Abbott’s veiled threat is actually hollow. But it will nevertheless be long remembered in Jakarta as another notorious example of Australian arrogance and lack of manners. It may have spoiled whatever good the intervention of the six former prime ministers might have done.

Chan and Sukamaran’s best hope now is for Abbott and his ministers – indeed, for any Australian politician – to say nothing more in public on the matter. Let Jakarta try if it can to find a way over coming weeks to deal with this further damaging episode in Australian –Indonesian relations: hopefully, in a way that spares these two last Bali Nine members’ lives.


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