Renae release spotlights death penalty

Craig Skehan
The walls of Kerobokan Prison in Bali where Australian drug traffickers awaited the death penalty

In the early days after the 2005 arrest of the so-called 'Bali Nine' Australians, Indonesian authorities stated they faced heroin charges that could result in the death penalty.

The spectre of standing before a firing squad haunted all of them, including the youngest, Matthew Norman, who was only 18.

After various court appeals, and bids for clemency from successive Indonesian presidents failed, it was only ringleaders Andrew Chan, 34, and Myuran Sukumaran, 31, who were shot.

Immediately before their executions took place in 2015, family members who travelled to Bali, not least Sukumaran's weeping mother, made impassioned pleas for them to be spared.

The issue was muddied by the fact that many Australians were supportive of the 2008 executions of three Muslim militants involved in the Bali bombings of 2002 in which 202 people died, including 88 Australians.

Bali is majority Hindu, with animism and ancestor worship rolled in. The overwhelming majority of the Muslim minority hold moderate religious views.

But Kerobokan Prison, where Chan and Sukumaran had come to expect that they would not be executed given that so much time had elapsed, still has a cell area reserved for Muslim hardliners.

Drug mule Renae Lawrence, 41, being released this week after serving 12 years of her 20-year sentence, leaves behind five fellow Bali Nine members serving life sentences, some of them having only narrowly escaped execution.

In May, another one, Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen, 34, died in custody from cancer.

With an Indonesian presidential election due in April, there is little short-term prospect of the last of the naive and misguided gaggle of Australians securing any quick presidential intervention for earlier release.

Lifers don't benefit from the 'good behaviour' and other remissions that helped Lawrence.

And many in Indonesia's drug-plagued society want their political leaders to be tough on drug runners.

But there are signs that the tide may be turning against the death penalty in Asia, where more people are executed than any other region of the world.

For example, the new government in Malaysia recently put executions on hold and announced it would abolish the death penalty by the end of this year.

A deep irony is that this is being done under the watch of surprisingly returned prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, aged 93; the man who oversaw the hangings in 1986 of convicted Australian heroin traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers.

Then Australian prime minister Bob Hawke unleashed a bitter diplomatic furore when he branded the hangings "barbaric".

More recently, Chan and Sukumaran admitted they had not thought about the potential consequences for themselves while plotting to import more than eight kilograms of heroin into Australia.

Both admitted their motivation was short-term financial gain and that the prospect of death had not been included in their calculations.

Chan and Sukumaran were originally regarded as tough, aggressive characters, but people who came to know them said they morphed behind bars into more thoughtful, even kind, individuals.

"Maybe at first they did good deeds hoping for mercy, but in the end, it was part of their lives," a former Kerobokan prisoner told AAP.

From Pakistan to Japan and Singapore, executions continue. Rights groups say China executed more than 2000 people in 2017 and that Vietnam sanctioned the state killing of more than 1100 people in the five years from mid-2011. Many more remain on death row in both countries.

In 2005, Australian Van Tuong Nguyen, 25, from a Vietnamese refugee family, was executed in Singapore despite giving evidence in relation to alleged masterminds behind his heroin smuggling bid. Then Prime Minister Howard did his best to stop his hanging.

In the cases of Chan and Sukumaran, some observers believed that Howard could have done more to pressure Indonesia not to take their lives.

Others maintain that outside intervention in individual cases can sometimes do more harm than good.

As Prime Minister, Tony Abbott did make a stand, even pointing to the fact that Australia provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid following the 2004 Tsunami that caused great devastation and loss of life, particularly in Indonesia.

As well as nations seeking clemency for their own nationals, death penalty opponents hope for a rising international abhorrence of the practice that will lead to further reductions in its use and eventually abolition.

According to Amnesty International, only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Singapore executed people for drug crimes in 2017, a significant geographical shrinkage.

But in October this year alone, anti-death penalty activists said, there were seven executions in Singapore for drug offences.

Nonetheless, they said government data indicated that the level of drug abuse in the island state rose between 2003 and 2017.

When Chan and Sukumaran were executed, other Bali Nine members in Kerobokan Prison, located in the heart of Bali's main tourist area, wore black arms bands.

But a distraught Renae Lawrence, in the remote Bali prison she was moved to in 2014, mourned alone.

Other Australians have been executed overseas, including 37-year-old heroin trafficker Michael Denis McAuliffe in Malaysia in 1993.

It can be expected that others from 'Down Under' will in future perish in this way.