Capital punishment is wrong
The best way to honour our murdered countrymen is to speak out against the death penalty

So they are dead.

After a decade spent on death row in Kerobokan prison, on Nusakambangan Island two nights ago the lives of two members of the Bali Nine were extinguished.

The executions of Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and six other prisoners were reportedly quick. Less than ten minutes, we are told. A bullet to the head was not required. But we will never truly know.

With the guns aimed at their hearts, the eight prisoners sang ‘Amazing Grace’. They faced their executioners with open eyes. Their last thoughts we will never know, but we know they are dead, murdered in a brutal act sanctioned by the Indonesian state.

Death may be occasioned by a cruel twist of fate occasioned by nature or human foible, but it is unconscionable that it be delivered by a bullet of the state.

As we grieve for these young men – and recall that, whatever their rehabilitation in prison, they are convicted drug smugglers – Australians are right to feel angry. 

We are right to be angry at Indonesia’s government. Capital punishment is a barbarous anachronism; as a practical deterrent against the drug trade it is hopeless.

We are right to be angry at Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his political puppeteer Megawati. This shameless display of populism diminishes them both. The announcement of the final execution date on Anzac Day was beneath contempt.

We are right to be angry at our own Australian Federal Police, whose tip-off delivered the Bali Nine gift-wrapped into the arms of the Indonesian justice system, even if we stop short of alleging that former AFP chief Mick Keelty and his officers have blood on their hands.

Our anger must be directed at the right source and channelled into a just cause. An orgy of misdirected social media patriotism will not bring back Chan and Sukumaran.

Celebrity denunciations of Tony Abbott’s diplomatic efforts to save the duo are entirely misplaced, as is lawyer Geoffrey Robertson’s sledge against “dozy diplomats” – men and women who likely worked around the clock to save these two lives. Australia’s decision to recall our ambassador to Indonesia is entirely appropriate.

It is wrong to blame ordinary Indonesians and to threaten them with collective punishment, as Robertson also argued when he urged that Australian aid money be diverted to Nepal. It speaks volumes that he finds himself in the company of Senator Jacqui Lambie. Boycotting Bali, as many have loudly demanded, is scarcely an appropriate response either.

The best way to honour our murdered countrymen is to speak out fearlessly against the death penalty wherever it is used. Our righteous anger cannot be restricted to Indonesia or Singapore or Malaysia, countries who have previously executed Australian citizens. We must avoid the temptation to fall back on conspiracy theories regarding alleged bribes made to Indonesian judges, or technical matters of judicial process.

Let us hear an end to the argument that we reject the death penalty because criminals have rehabilitated themselves. We reject the death penalty because it is wrong.

Our hypocrisy and indifference matter too. Executions are carried out by states around the world each day, but our collective empathy and outrage are mostly missing in action, our Twitter and Facebook feeds uncrowded by #istandformercy hashtags.

Our American allies – and I make no apology for saying the US is a force for good – have executed 1360 prisoners since 1976, mostly through lethal injection. Though this practice is becoming rarer, our voices of protest are muted. More than 3000 people currently sit on death row. Our silence means that America’s great moral shame is also ours.

Capital punishment statistics are less clear in China, but most estimates conclude that many thousands of people are executed each year. Again we are silent.

Just over a week ago Julie Bishop visited Tehran. Needless to say, the debate over her donning of a head scarf was a distraction. Few questioned her modus operandi – handing over hundreds of asylum seekers to the theocratic Iranian regime. How many will end up on the end of a hangman’s noose, as thousands do each year, say for being homosexual?

So it is too late to save eight murdered souls. And it will be too late for the next Australians on death row unless we speak up now against the death penalty wherever it persists.  

This is how we must remember Andrew and Myuran.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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