September 2008


The penalty is death

By Luke Davies
The penalty is death

Andrew Chan being escorted from Denpasar District Court after being sentenced to death. 14 February 2006. © AFP - Getty Images.

Inside Bali's Kerobokan Prison

On a sweltering June day in the crowded visiting yard of Bali's Kerobokan Prison, I asked Myuran Sukumaran, a young Australian on death row for drug trafficking, about sleep, and dreams. Does he ever have dreams where he's free? Sukumaran shrugged, then grinned. "Daydreams, maybe," he said.

In Kerobokan, there are long, idle hours for activity such as that. The hours are only broken by the visiting periods, six days a week, when friends and relatives of the prisoners squeeze into a tiled courtyard about half the size of a basketball court, jostling for space and sitting on reed mats on the hard ground. Stretched over the space, a canvas awning keeps out the worst of the noonday heat. It also traps the humid air in uncirculating stillness.

Another time I asked if, out in the prisoners' yard, with the rectangle of blue sky framed so starkly by the prison buildings, clouds become interesting. Sukumaran, who goes by the name Myu, thought about this for a while, as he did with most questions, before shaking his head. "Not clouds," he said. "Not really. But planes make you think. You see one now and again. I always think of that scene from The Unit." He went on to describe a complicated balloon-and-winch system, as seen in the television program, in which commandos are evacuated, by a kind of airborne slingshot contraption, from sticky situations in foreign places. There was something surreal, and a touch forlorn, about the fantasy. Later, he joked: "I really want one of those balloons. Maybe even a hot-air balloon would be enough. You wouldn't know where I could get one, would you?"

The prison nestles amid the narrow streets of Kerobokan - a bustling, ramshackle town not greatly touched by tourism - like a blank, monolithic temple, rimmed with barbed wire, all its activities turned inwards. Visitors, when finally they are granted access, receive a purple stamp on the wrist that allows them to leave. They bring food to the prison, and tissues are used as serviettes. Each day I visited, Sukumaran, who has a recurring nervous blink, would pick at these tissues as he talked, seemingly unaware of the action. He would tear them up into hundreds of tiny pieces, his fingers fidgeting methodically even as the conversation flowed gently. At the end of each visit, amid the food refuse and plastic water bottles, there would be a dense little mound of tissue confetti in a half-circle around where he had been sitting.

Sukumaran talks in a measured way, but it is clear his mind is racing. Andrew Chan, also on death row for the same offence, talks like a bag of firecrackers going off, and somehow seems more at home. Where Sukumaran is rangy, considered and thoughtful, Chan is compact, more spontaneous in his replies, something of a scrapper - quick with a cheeky smile, and always willing to offer analyses of other prisoners. "He's a puzzled individual," he said of one. "He's very puzzled. His life is a puzzle. And he doesn't know how to put the pieces together." Chan constantly riffs on themes in this manner, paraphrasing his own statements, throwing the words around, variation after variation, in a kind of comical running banter. He's something of a motor-mouth, in a larrikin way, and he has a few scars that make you wonder how often it's gotten him into trouble.

Chan and Sukumaran were arrested in April 2005, and charged with drug trafficking, along with seven other Australians. They came to be known collectively as the Bali Nine. Unlike Australia, where co-accused usually face trial together, in Indonesia the nine went through a series of separate trials and appeals in different combinations. All were found guilty and sentenced by judges of the District Court in February 2006. Sukumaran and Chan received the death penalty; the other seven, life imprisonment.

On each of Sukumaran and Chan's three appeals, that sentence has remained. For the seven others, several life sentences were reduced by the intermediate High Court to 20 years. On further appeal - by all except Renae Lawrence - to the Supreme Court, the sentences were increased to either life in prison or the death penalty. For a time in September 2006, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision, six were on death row. At that point, there was one more legal option: a final appeal to the Supreme Court, known as a Peninjauan Kembali, or PK. In their PK decided in 2007, three had their death penalties reduced to life imprisonment, leaving Sukumaran, Chan and Scott Rush on death row. Each has at least one legal option, the PK, still to be taken.

Failing that, and if all other options are unsuccessful, at some point in the future Chan and Sukumaran will be woken one morning before dawn - assuming they have slept. They will be handcuffed to prison officers and led to a van. The van will drive from the prison, through the local streets, and about five miles through the jungle to an isolated beach. Indonesia's 1964 "Penetapan Presiden No. 2" death-penalty regulations, still the current ones, state: "Once arriving at the place of their death, the condemned is blindfolded (although they can choose not to be) (s.11(4))." A white apron will be draped over each of them, with a round red target over the heart. It is generally thought that their hands will be tied or handcuffed behind their backs to a pole, although the regulations tell us, "The condemned is given the freedom to choose how they will die - standing, sitting or lying (s.12(1))": surely the saddest final life choice imaginable. There will be 20 soldiers, members of the Indonesian Mobile Brigade, who will have passed "appropriate psychological tests" - ten soldiers for Chan, ten for Sukumaran - and for each lot of ten rifles, two live bullets and eight blanks. The state delivers justice, or retribution, in executing its wrongdoers, but the blanks say something about an instinctive human resistance to the killing of a defenceless person. They allow, however flimsily, for a collective sense among the firing squad members of diffusion of responsibility. An experienced marksman can tell the difference between a blank and a live bullet, due to the strength of the recoil; nonetheless, the loophole of the blank cartridge has long been a tradition of the firing squad. In any case, the young men's hearts will burst. Death will be massively traumatic, though there is some debate about just how swift. But "Penetapan Presiden No. 2" has the contingencies covered. "If after the shooting, the condemned still shows signs they are not yet dead, the Commander immediately gives the order to the head of the firing squad to let off a tembakan pengakhir (finishing shot) by pressing the barrel of the gun against the temple of the condemned, right above their ear (s.14(4))."

Each morning I arrived up to an hour and a half early at the sunbaked concrete waiting area outside Kerobokan Prison. It was always already full of Indonesian families, mostly women and children. The entry procedure is laboriously slow; if you do not arrive early, you risk having much of the visiting time eaten up. After the long wait and the various security checks, I would spy Chan across the visitors' yard, his patch of ground staked out by the dimensions of a reed mat, his attention completely absorbed by an issue of Rugby League Week. (He's a Panthers fan.) Chan is a friendly host, snapping his fingers and signalling for bottled water from the vendor - capitalism thrives, even on the inside - as if we were sitting at a Parisian café and he were catching the waiter's attention. The week of my visit, his family came too: father, Ken; mother, Helen; younger sister, Mary; and her fiancé, Vin. (His older brother and sister, Michael and Frances, are back in Sydney.) Chan had gotten hold of two low plastic stools for his parents: Ken is 72, and Helen, 60.

There's a definite sense that Chan has found his way around inside, though perhaps it is just that Sukumaran is at first more reserved. If Chan is suffering from depression or anxiety - and it is hard to believe that anyone, anywhere, in this situation could not be - he's harnessed his restless energy into something ostensibly purposeful. Sukumaran's deep alarm at being a prisoner in Bali is not as well masked as Chan's. After three years, Chan speaks reasonably fluent Indonesian; Sukumaran has very little. Chan is confident, sometimes playful, even at times with the guards; but never confrontational. There's something personable and ockerish about him. His broad Australian accent came as something of a surprise - as if, along with the Asian-crime-lord image from the tabloid media, I was expecting a clichéd accent too. He hates that the media have painted him and Sukumaran as Gangster 1 and Gangster 2.

There's a furious energy, and a manic edge, to his patter. I'm not sure how easily I can imagine him as Gangster 1 (or 2, for that matter), but it's easy to picture him being relentless, fearless, punching above his weight. His running commentaries are amusing, and the anecdotes come thick and fast.

On the day of his sentencing, when a reporter called out across the yard to his holding cell, "What's the best thing that's happened to you since you've been here?" Chan shot back: "Meetin' you fellas, eh?" They are the only words he'd spoken publicly until now. Of Schapelle Corby he said, with a big wry grin, "She's like the Harbour Bridge - she's iconic, mate. She's iconic." Of fellow Bali Nine member Renae Lawrence, in the female section of the prison with mostly young Indonesian women: "If I was her and I was a lezzo, I'd be thinking, mate, you've put me in heaven. Absolute heaven." On ribbing his brother Michael about his recent wedding, back in Sydney: "I said to him, ‘If I ever have a reception, mate, I'll have it at McDonald's. One, it's cheaper. Two, everyone's happy: we get 'em all a Happy Meal. And three, everyone gets a toy to take home.'"

But gradually, over the days I visited, the conversation turned to more serious matters. I asked: How often do you think about the worst-case scenario? His face turned instantly sombre; his answer came lightning-fast. "I don't have a bond with negativity. If I let that grow, it will grow forever."

When I asked Sukumaran the same question, he said, "For me, I don't think about it at all. I think: It's not going to happen. It can't happen." He waved his hands emphatically in front of his chest, as if waving something distasteful away. "Whatever happens," he went on, "you can deal with it. As long as you have the future."

Chan gave the impression of being determined to keep things busy, and stay in the moment. At times, Sukumaran seemed so consumed with anxiety about his predicament, it was a form of deep distractedness in itself. But it struck me that, under the looming pressure of a death sentence, both of them are in their own ways striving to delineate the question of how best to be human, to actively exist, with consciousness and will, in the worst of circumstances. Chan referred to "things that you know you can't deal with: I'm not that kind of person who says, ‘I'll let time settle on it.' Or I can't say, ‘In five years' time, this is what I can look forward to.' Or any time in the future. That's just a dream. Things that I know I've got no control over, I say to myself, ‘Why am I worrying about it?' If I've got a problem, I don't want heat growing on it."

In what ways, then, I asked him, has living under the death penalty made him a different person? His answer, which was far from coherent to me, seemed to contain a pained yearning for continuity. "I see things new. I lived life freely - planned things and shit like that. Get me? But these days I live life to the fullest. I learn to live every day. I'm not saying I don't have a future. But I build things. I'm saying, if I want to become things, I need to start building now. Like" - he gestured to me - "if I wanted to become a writer in 30 years, I wouldn't think: In 30 years I'll become a writer. I'd start building something from now."

Julian McMahon is the barrister organising the Australian end of Chan and Sukumaran's fight against the death penalty, with a group of volunteers drawn from the highest echelons of Melbourne's legal world. (He and the QC - now Supreme Court judge - Lex Lasry took on the case just before the death penalty was handed down for the third time, in September 2006.) McMahon is a young-looking 44, with thinning sandy hair and bookish glasses. His chambers, in a gracious old building in the heart of the city where even the lifts feel as though they come from a 1940s film-noir set, is overflowing with thick case folders, towering stacks of papers and an eclectic mix of books. Nearest to hand beside his desk is a book, well-thumbed, well-marked, of the prison writings of Thomas More, awaiting beheading in the Tower of London in 1534, including his ‘Prayer Before Dying' and ‘Meditation on Detachment' ("Give me thy grace, good Lord, to set the world at nought").

McMahon calls capital punishment the "premeditated, state-sanctioned ritualised killing of a person who is defenceless"- echoing a comment from half a century earlier by the French judge Robert Falco, who condemned to death a man who had murdered his own daughter and thrown her down a well. Seeing it as a matter of duty, Falco went to the execution. The memory of the "dreadful spectacle" stayed with him, and he came, after long consideration, to call capital punishment "administrative assassination". McMahon acts for Chan and Sukumaran because he believes it is his duty as a lawyer to devote a portion of his time and energy, pro bono, to defend from execution those who cannot defend themselves. His convictions were strengthened in recent years by a very personal experience. With Lex Lasry, he had taken on the death-row case of Van Nguyen, a young Australian arrested at Singapore's Changi Airport in December 2002 with 396 grams of heroin strapped to his body, reportedly for the purpose of getting his then heroin-addicted twin brother, Khoa, out of drug-related debt. Van Nguyen was sentenced to death and, despite a number of appeals, was executed by hanging in December 2005. On the day before he was hanged, his mother and Khoa were allowed a final visit. (Lasry and McMahon applied to be present at the execution itself, but were denied permission. No outsiders may witness executions.) The lawyers waited in a corridor while that visit took place. A keening, guttural lament, a chilling animal sound like nothing McMahon had ever heard, swept down the corridor. Mrs Nguyen fell into Lasry's arms, Khoa into McMahon's; the mother and brother wept inconsolably for 15 minutes. At that moment, McMahon told me, "one of the things that clicked in my mind with a simple assuredness was that the death penalty is absolutely wrong, because of what they were going through. That final senseless, useless separation."

Tolstoy, witnessing a more brutal kind of separation at an execution in Paris in 1857, came to the same conclusion.

When I saw the head part from the body, and each of them fall separately into a box with a thud, I understood - not in my mind, but with my whole being - that no rational doctrine of progress could justify that act, and that if every man now living in the world, and every man who had lived since the beginning of time, were to maintain, in the name of some theory or other, that this execution was indispensable, I should still know it was not indispensable: that it was wrong.

History, and codified law, has generally disagreed. As long as states have existed, state killing has been carried out. But, for the first time in recorded history, we live in an era where the majority of them have outlawed the death penalty. Amnesty International figures from early 2007 show that 88 countries have abolished capital punishment for all crimes, and a further 11 have abolished it for all but "exceptional" ones, such as war crimes. In addition, 29 countries are now considered to be abolitionist in practice: the death penalty remains in law, but no executions have been carried out in ten years or more. Of that total of 128 countries, 45 had abolished the death penalty for all crimes in the years after 1990. This left, in 2007, 69 countries which still retained and used the death penalty, although the number executing prisoners in any given year is smaller than that, and as more creep past Amnesty's ten-year dividing line, they will join the abolitionist-in-practice category.

Things seldom go in the other direction: since 1985, only four abolitionist countries have reintroduced the death penalty. Of those, Nepal and the Philippines then re-abolished it, while in Gambia and Papua New Guinea there have been no executions.

About 90% of all executions take place in six countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and the USA. The numbers will range from more than 1000 for China (though Amnesty calls these figures the tip of the iceberg, and says they may be as high as 8000 in a given year) down to around 50 in the US, spread across a dozen states.

"We hang or electrocute A simply in order to so alarm B that he will not kill C," wrote HL Mencken in 1926. It's the principle of deterrence, though there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty acts in such a way. "The business of deterring others is no more than an afterthought," Mencken admitted. "The main thing is to destroy the concrete scoundrels whose act has alarmed everyone, and thus made everyone unhappy." It's called revenge, he said, though he preferred to "borrow a better term from the late Aristotle: katharsis" - a "salubrious discharge of emotion" for the whole society. The great irony is that capital-punishment statistics in fact only ever tell us of those - the executed and those awaiting execution - for whom the death penalty was clearly not a deterrent.

Myuran Sukumaran would like to have started his own business. A video shop. A café. A restaurant. An internet company. As he listed the possibilities, the words came out sounding nonchalant and casual, because the ideas sounded so plausible. It was hard to read Andrew Chan's eyes, but when I looked at Sukumaran's I was struck by the feeling that I've rarely encountered such sorrow, as if his entire life these days is a perpetual effort not to weep. He knows there's a swathe of public opinion that would merely say: You should have thought of all this before you did what you did. For Sukumaran, that thinking - you must take responsibility for your actions; it is only how you deal with what is, not what might have been, that matters; you do the crime, you do the time - is drowned out in the white noise of regret.

And yet it is precisely time that he continually ponders. "You know," he said, "if you were going to get out of here in ten, 15, 20 years, it'd be nice to think you could get yourself an education." In the chaos and heat of the yard, listening in close, I thought: Where does he get these figures from - ten, 15, 20? What fantasy is he entertaining? His case, and Chan's, rests with the PK appeal to the Supreme Court, which is currently being prepared; and if that is unsuccessful, then with clemency - with the possibility of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's deciding that mercy is a valid alternative to the letter of the law. If that day comes, then Death may be exchanged for Life. But there, in the crowded visitors' yard, cross-legged on the hard floor as Sukumaran mechanically picked Kleenex tissues into tiny shreds, it all seemed far away.

"If I do end up getting executed," he told me, "I'd rather it happened quick than sit around and wait. If I do go back to the world in 30 years, that's scary too. But if there's a number, at least you can count down the days." It seems an extraordinary notion, to cross days off, one at a time, for so many years. "Twenty years from now," he continued, "the friends I have, won't be." (He didn't appear to notice he'd dropped ten years off a hypothetical change of circumstances.) "I'll be 47. Technology will have changed so much. You'll probably need three degrees just to get a job." When he talked of a distant future, he seemed so genuinely lost, and wracked with quiet anxieties. Beyond his shoulder, on the window of an administrative section beside the yard, I noticed a sticker: Every day is Sunday in Bali. Especially today.

Like Chan, Sukumaran loathes the way he's been portrayed in the media: the Asian-drug-lord tag. "I'm still looking for my ‘green Mercedes' and my ‘many girlfriends'," he said, grinning. Three months before his arrest, he had taken up jujitsu classes in a local hall. When the tabloid media found out about this, Sukumaran became the martial-arts expert known as ‘The Enforcer'. Then there was the infamous media scrum, when Sukumaran and Chan were led from a police van to the courthouse. Footage from that day was replayed incessantly on TV. In it, they move forward, handcuffed together, while police push a way through the melee, as cameramen and reporters jostle around them for position. Suddenly Sukumaran lashes out. A female reporter falls over.

When I asked about this, Sukumaran said that on that morning, in February 2006, their then lawyers had contacted them at the prison and told them the mood was grim, that things were looking bad. The death penalty was suddenly likely. The two were, as Sukumaran put it, "a bit stressed". "I was shocked. I didn't have time to think. We were never prepared for the death penalty." They stepped out of the van and into chaos. "It was hard to move, hard to hear anything above the shouting. I couldn't see more than a couple of people ahead. The guard held me tight and pulled me through. Andrew was being pulled another way. We were handcuffed very tightly. I thought my elbow would break. They wouldn't give us any space. I was being pulled apart. This reporter kept screaming out questions and I couldn't understand a word she was saying. She kept jabbing this long mic in my face. It hit me two or three times and I tried to grab it away."

The clenched jaw in that footage looks a lot more like fear to me than rage, but perhaps the two are not so far apart. In any case, ‘The Enforcer' was born. "Enjoy your trip to hell," is the kind of hate mail Sukumaran receives from time to time, but he tries to not let it get to him. Prison clarifies; a death sentence, more so. "You see things a whole lot different. Like, a lot of stuff, you think it's a waste of time."

There is a surprising softness to Sukumaran. He's the introvert to Chan's extrovert. Perhaps his version of coping is merely more pensive than that of Chan, who tends to shrug things off. Sukumaran bemoaned the lack of privacy: "If something goes wrong - with people in here or with your family or whatever - you can only internalise it. There's nowhere to go." I suggested that this may be, the way I imagine it when I try, the worst of the punishment: the constant internalisation. His eyes welled up for a brief moment, and he turned his face away.

In Sydney's west, I met Sukumaran's family: mother, Rajini; brother, Chinthu; and sister, Brintha. The living room of the neat townhouse was simply furnished, with white tiles that, in an odd coincidence, resembled those of the prison courtyard. It was well over an hour into my visit before my eyes took in, on the far side of the room, the large, unwieldy stack of boxes and cartons against the far wall, draped with plastic sheeting: Myuran's worldly goods, as if suspended in transit. They were moved here when the family fled their previous house, after the media attention had become too much. I kept being drawn to them, running my eyes over their bulging contours. That stack of boxes seemed as sad to me as anything that was said in the time I spent with the Sukumarans. It wasn't that the family didn't know what to do with Myuran's belongings, Rajini explained; it was that they hadn't found the time, or the energy, to deal with them yet.

I'm the first outsider the Sukumarans have spoken to, and the release of bottled-up emotion was palpable. They were nervous, but eager to talk, and Rajini perched for much of my visit on the edge of her seat. But there was a gentle warmth between them, too; their words overspilt each other, and it was endearing, the way they finished one another's sentences and stories.

Myuran was born in London in 1981, where Rajini and her husband had gone to study accountancy. At an early age he was sent back to Sri Lanka, to live with grandparents, while Rajini dropped out of her courses and worked to support her husband's studies. In 1985 they collected baby Myuran and migrated to Australia, where Chinthu and Brintha were later born. Myuran's father has been ill for many years now, and was unavailable for interview. "He's not well," Brintha said. "He cares. But he's not well."

The night after Myuran's arrest, Brintha saw her brother on the TV news. She became hysterical; when her mother arrived home, Brintha locked the front door from the inside, "because I didn't know how to tell her and I didn't know what to do." Rajini was knocking furiously - "I could see from [Brintha's] face that something had happened" - and finally Brintha managed to unlock the door. "Myu - Bali - drugs - arrested: these are the four words that I heard," Rajini told me. "Something went cold from top to bottom. My blood turned to ice. And I just fell. I just fell on the floor. And then I sort of realised that she was on top of me, that there was something happening to her. I thought she was fainting or something, so I had to quickly bring myself up, pull her up and then we both sat down."

Like the Chans, the Sukamarans were besieged by the media in those early, bewildering weeks. They could not leave their home without being followed. Rajini was ambushed at work, which is how her colleagues found out. And the media was constantly "getting it wrong". The Sukamarans saw, in various dramatic reports, a son and brother they did not recognise:

In court he was a gentle giant. Outside, he turned into a raging bull as he shouldered his way through journalists and smashed one photographer in the head.

Myuran Sukumaran, the Sydney martial arts expert sentenced to death in Denpasar along with Bali Nine ringleader Andrew Chan, maintained the stubborn silence which has infuriated judges, even when protesters arrived clamouring for his death. (, 14 February 2006)

Brintha shuddered when I asked how they felt when they saw glimpses of Myuran on TV. In the early times, she said, they watched the news obsessively. It seemed nobody slept. When they left the house, it was always furtively, or by prior arrangement, with relatives, and getaway cars. They tried to inure themselves, as if an act of will were all it would take to alleviate the pain.

Van Nguyen's journey towards the gallows in Singapore was one of genuine transformation: he had to lose his life to find it. Julian McMahon speaks of him as being, when McMahon first took on his case, "a typical young street punk who had not come from terrible circumstances. Young men like that, they have bravado, which of course to someone twice their age you can see straight through to be more like fear ... He was under the impression that he knew a lot about his situation, that he had it under control, that he probably didn't need too much help but thanks for coming anyway." Then it all came crashing down. Singaporean law calls for mandatory execution for anyone holding more than 15 grams of narcotics, an extraordinarily small amount, under the circumstances. Van Nguyen was sentenced to death in March 2004, his final appeal was rejected in October 2004, clemency was rejected in October 2005, and he was hanged on 2 December 2005.

 "It's very hard to mature," said McMahon, "when you're in your cell 23 hours a day and you get a very occasional visit from your lawyers." But it appears that Van Nguyen did mature while on death row. It appears, if we assume that his prison writings are not merely the hysterical happy face of a person in chronic denial, that he took responsibility for his actions and his life; that he lost all thought of self-gain and cared only for how he could help others, his mother in particular; and that he died, albeit with great regrets, a man at peace. There's the irony, the absurdity in all this: under the drawn-out agony of the death-row wait, some people journey to the outer reaches of their emotional capacity and moral intelligence, becoming more fully human - and then we kill them.

After receiving his death sentence, Van Nguyen heard a nun, Sister Gerard, singing ‘Ave Maria' to another prisoner on death row. His heart melted, he said, and he reached out to her. He had no real religious background. He struggled with reading and making sense of the Bible, a vast compendium of words, of dense, baroque stories. During an earlier visit from Lasry and McMahon, Van Nguyen described his failure to make any headway with the Bible. Lasry isn't a particularly religious person; McMahon has always kept his beliefs separate from his legal practice. Nonetheless, McMahon said, "I couldn't really leave him in that state where he was deeply troubled ... and it was really the only thing outside of his legal situation that was on his mind." So the Jesuit-educated lawyer told Van Nguyen of the Ignatian technique of repetitive meditative engagement with a text: of pausing over a passage or a few words and imagining, pondering, and then perhaps coming back to the same thing the following day, and building up a picture of its meaning in the mind. When Van Nguyen asked for a starting point, McMahon suggested Psalm 23, ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd', with its promise of restoration, and bounty, and mercy. (Later, McMahon gave him some of Thomas More's sixteenth-century prison writings - the same ones I had leafed through when he left me at his desk to read through Van Nguyen's papers. "To lean unto the comfort of God," Van Nguyen would have read in More's ‘Meditation on Detachment'. "To have ever before my eye my death that is ever at hand.")

The more radical change that McMahon and Lasry and all others who had contact with Van Nguyen began to note happened some time after the ‘Ave Maria' incident, in May 2005. Van Nguyen told McMahon he was in the shower, staring out a tiny window slot at the distant sky, and was suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that he'd been wasting his time, all of his life, and didn't want to waste even a single second more before he died. By then, McMahon said, "he knew in his heart that he was going to die." From that moment, the only instructions he gave to McMahon and Lasry were to do with how to help his friends, his brother and, most of all, his mother.

Van Nguyen's private writings are a desperate attempt to chart his dwindling life: in them there is the anger and regret and fear and distractedness you might expect, but also at moments a peaceful resignation, and even a sense of humour. "Strange how the simplest of thoughts become incoherent come pen and paper," he writes. "I simply turn off as easily as they approach. Emotions have no consequence here. The motions of each day are met one subliminal step at a time ... My reprieved time inspires me as much as it frightens. Welcome to the Matrix."

Visits brought both highs and lows: "Are we not in constant search of sense? With each departure, I am humbled. And with renewed reverence, I breathe."

"I am afraid," he wrote, "to be forgotten."

Then one day he woke up, and knew it was his last. "There was no one that I am aware of," said McMahon, who was in the prison on the morning of the execution, "to whom he bore any ill will when he died. He generated a lot of love in his prison environment, which is a strange phenomenon to come across." The 15 other prisoners on death row sang ‘Amazing Grace' as Van Nguyen was taken from his cell and escorted the handful of metres to the gallows. They continued singing; that would have been the last thing he heard.

On Singaporean death certificates, the phrase "Condition leading to death" is used in place of the more familiar "Cause of death". On Van Nguyen's certificate, the condition is stark and simple: "fracture dislocation of cervical spine". A second phrase reads, "Approximate interval between onset and death"; for Van Nguyen, the interval was "INSTANTANEOUS".

Over the course of a week in Bali, the Chan family told me their story. One night we went to a food court in Kuta, where we ate a Chinese meal under a harsh fluorescent glare. The Chans were deeply stressed, cramming in this week of harried time with Andrew. They looked like the walking wounded, with wounds that cannot heal.

Ken Chan arrived in Australia in 1955, aged 20. He worked hard, always in the restaurant business. It was 22 years before he met and married Helen, 12 years his junior. "In the beginning," he said, "it was a strange marriage, because we didn't know each other. But now it's, what, 31 years." He paused. "I look after her." Michael, the eldest child, was born in 1978, and Frances not long after; Andrew was born in 1984, followed by Mary, the youngest. Ken and Helen ran Chinese restaurants all over Sydney, in Lindfield, Leichhardt, North Ryde. Michael and Frances often looked after the two younger ones. Andrew was a livewire, but also, by their own reckoning, the closest of the four children to their parents. "He could make friends wherever and whenever," says Mary. Speaking in the present tense of that distant childhood, Ken says of his son, "He's pretty active, the boy." It seemed to me to be the understatement of the year. "Everyone in the street knows him."

Everyone in the prison knows him, too. When the guards tried to end visiting time 15 minutes early one day, Andrew Chan was the first on his feet, giving a bit of lip in Indonesian. A tiny smile broke out on Ken's face. Myuran Sukumaran, unhappy, frustrated by the guards' inconsistencies, walked away, his face tense. He returned a few minutes later, when our time had been extended. Chan appeared to have forgotten about it; Sukumaran brooded.

Away from the prison, Ken Chan is a realist. "We can't help," he said flatly to me. What makes you the saddest, I asked - what breaks your heart? "Breaks my heart?" he replied. "Oh, breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because we worked so hard in our life, and then ..." He looked away. And this is what it comes to? After a long pause: "Yeah. I think this is the hardest part."

Do you ever feel angry? Another long pause. "It's not angry. Just upset." He struggled to express himself in English: "Very hard to forget. Still in your head all the time." Then, as if to put something else in his head, he added: "We'll go swimming in the morning. That's not so bad." (There was a small, soupy pool at their modest Kuta motel.)

Later, when I apologised to Helen Chan for causing such distress with my questions, she said, "If it helps Andrew in any way, that's good. If not, I thank you anyway." It was an ominous "if not". I asked Ken if this visit was harder than the last one. "It was easier last time," he said, and I thought he was about to speak of emotional changes. "They changed the rules. No cans of food now. And takes longer to get in each time." He was thinking of the extended delays, the waiting in a hot concrete yard, the six bureaucratic and security-screening processes to pass through. I found them trying; I can't imagine what it must have been like for a 72-year-old.

Mary Chan, Andrew's younger sister, chipped in. "The first year it was very difficult," she said. "The last two years, you go back on track." It is good to come to Bali, where at least they get to see Andrew in his own environment. "Since we've been here a couple of times, we understand he's better than what we think."

It is all about the dividing up of Time. At one point, when we first met, I asked Ken, "So you haven't seen your son for two years?" As quick as a flash, he replied: "Twenty months." During the interviews, I came across a great deal of such precision. All of those involved - Chan and Sukumaran, and their families - are obsessed with dates, numbers, lengths of time, what happened when, which event preceded which other event: as if they all contain almanacs and yearbooks inside their heads; as if all these small, concrete specifics alleviate the vast dread of some greater final truth. Andrew Chan has celebrated three birthdays in prison now; it is four for Myuran Sukumaran, who was arrested the night of his twenty-fourth birthday.

And yet, beyond the specifics of numbers, time blurs. When I asked Mary if anything stood out as being particularly awful in the past three years, she came up blank. Eventually, she said, "Seeing him the first time was overwhelming." And since - does she think about the worst-case scenario? "In the back of my head I do, but I try to keep it at the back." Have you ever discussed it with Andrew? She looked out to the yard of the apartment where we were talking, at a spindly rooster scratching in the dirt and crowing incessantly. "We've never spoken about it. It's too emotional."

A thread runs through the literature of capital punishment: people who see an execution often have a conversion experience. William Makepeace Thackeray went to a hanging as a curious observer in 1840. "The ginshop keepers have many of them taken their shutters down, and many persons are issuing from them pipe in hand. Down they go along the broad bright street, their blue shadows marching after them; for they are all bound the same way, and are bent like us upon seeing the hanging." There's a carnival atmosphere; 40,000 people crowd the square.

Later, the prisoner, stepping onto the gallows, "turned his head here and there, and looked about him for an instant with a wild imploring look." In that moment, Thackeray would have us understand how the condemned man's time to participate in ‘looking' at the world is diminishing so radically; how execution takes away the open-endedness of time which it is the lot of most of us to experience.

In abstract form, we understand what "blood demands blood" means. But after seeing the hanging, Thackeray was left with an "extraordinary feeling of terror and shame". "It seems to me," he wrote, "that I have been abetting an act of frightful wickedness and violence, performed by a set of men against one of their fellows; and I pray God that it may soon be out of the power of any man in England to witness such a hideous and degrading sight." Leaving the scene, he concludes: "I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done."

In Sydney's Hyde Park I met with Andrew Chan's older brother, Michael, and his wife. He's slightly thicker-set than Andrew, and clearly a deep thinker. He too speaks with a broad Australian accent; if you closed your eyes, it would be hard to tell them apart. His wife is softly spoken, and sees Michael as a pillar of strength - "he's ten feet tall in my eyes."

After the arrest, Michael Chan flew to Bali and became the shield for the rest of the family. He spent 11 of the next 12 months there, leaving when necessary to renew his visa. There was not much he could do, beyond being there for Andrew. Or he would go for four weeks, and come home for two or three days to see how his parents were coping.

From the earliest moments, he felt as if he were in a dream. "I'd just finished the grocery shopping to go home and cook dinner. I got the call from my parents saying my brother was in trouble. I got home and we had journalists there. They're the ones that told me what happened." Both Michael and his parents assumed, in their confusion, that the reporters were detectives; the reporters did nothing, for a while, to dispel that notion. "It was a big shock ... but more of a shock was that he was in Indonesia, in Bali - and there's a death penalty involved. My parents thought - I even thought, probably for the first hour - that they were police. Then it clicked, 'cos they were asking for pictures and everything. I said, ‘Excuse me, who are you?'" They told him. "And I said, ‘Well, it's time for youse to leave.'"

 We were sitting on the grass as the evening traffic began to build along Elizabeth Street. Michael's wife stroked his arm. "To this day," he said, "everything is still so surreal. It's like reading a novel or watching a movie. You know, things like this don't happen to you. Until it's right in your face."

The first time visiting his brother was the hardest. "I'd never seen him so helpless," says Michael. "He was crying and crying. I gave him a hug and I said, ‘It's going to be all right; I'm not going anywhere - I'll be here, however long it takes ...'" His voice cracked in the remembering.

As in all such stories, there were copious tears. When his parents did eventually come, and saw Andrew for the first time, "Mum broke down and cried. I'm 30, and I've never seen my dad cry. My dad was pretty much a hard man. But he did. I'd never seen him such a mess. So helpless. It was almost like seeing a ghost."

I asked Michael what he did in Bali, when he wasn't dealing with prison visits and the mysteries of foreign bureaucracies. Everything was exhausting, he said: he hated the sense of being followed everywhere, in the early months, and thought even the taxi drivers were reporting on his movements. He was never really a beach person; in his spare time he went back to his hotel room and slept. "Every time my phone rang it wasn't something good," he said. "It got to a point where I just had this constant ringtone in my head. Everyone had questions. There was never really an answer."

Dusk was deepening in Hyde Park, and dark clouds began to form. He remembered the little brother now in such deep shit. "He'd always be the little stray dog that followed wherever you went. If I wanted to go for a bike ride, he'd be behind me - probably about a kilometre behind me, but he'd still be there. Whatever I did, he wanted to do. He's always had the mentality of having a go at things. Normal kid, you know.

"As long as there's one breath in him, to him that's being happy. Anything else - even though he's in the worst situation he could be in at this point - he doesn't see that as a bad thing. He'll still enjoy his life until, you know, if that day does come or whatever ..." His voice trailed off, and when it came back, he seemed to have entered the realm of platitude. "He always finds the positive out of the negative."

Before all this happened, Michael was close to landing a job as a customs officer. "Obviously, that never went ahead. I didn't go for that." He works as a storeman in Sydney's west for a large retail chain, and speaks highly of his boss, for being non-judgemental and allowing him leave to visit Bali regularly. When I asked him how his boss first noticed something was wrong, he was awkward and self-deprecating, as if it pained him to think of giving less than 100% at work. "Um ... well, just ... my care-factor was down the drain, really ..." He shrugged his shoulders.

The talk turned to Helen, their mother. "It affects her greatly," he said. "He's the youngest son. He's the baby. I don't know how to console her. You can't tell your mother not to cry. It doesn't work like that." His voice cracked again. "It's hard to tell her not to cry, and to tell her it's all right. Because it's not all right."

His face had disappeared in the dark. A thunderstorm broke, suddenly and violently, and we ran for cover. But you live your life, yes? I asked. It's not utterly consumed with Andrew? "Everything else is less important," he replied. "I can't say that I don't think about it every day. It's always in the back of my mind. And on certain days, birthdays, weddings, you'd like him to be there, but obviously the circumstances are, he can't be. There are some things you can't unravel."

"I know that life will never be the same again," said Rajini Sukumaran, sitting in the living room with one of her sons and her daughter - and with Myu's life, there against the opposite wall, in boxes, draped in plastic. "Even if he comes home, gets married, I'll never ever be able to go back to how I was." (For now, she finds she can never go back to the fish markets, never buy crab and squid, which she had bought that April day in preparation for Myu's return, for his birthday.) What does she miss the most, right now? "Him just being himself, in trackies and a baggy T-shirt, sitting and watching TV, or picking me up after work, or ringing me and saying, ‘What's for dinner, Mum?' or cooking when I'm working back."

In Bali, I saw how much more of an island Sukumaran is than Chan. "We tried to tell him to learn Indonesian," said Brintha, "so he'd get to know the other prisoners better, but I think for him, the idea that he's going to be there for a long time ..." She stopped short. "If he learnt Indonesian," she went on, "it would mean he would have to accept he was going to be there for a long time." (Recently, in fact, Sukumaran started more actively applying himself to learning the language.)

The Sukumaran family is an island too. "There's times when we really needed people to be there for us," Brintha said. "There's some people who really wanted to know, but just so they could tell other people. And then there's other people who do stay away from us. I know that for sure." (Similarly, Ken Chan told me, "Some people, just disappear from our lives. As soon as Helen and I are walking, they walk the other way.") "A lot of people have been there," Brintha said, "but I have to admit I felt let down. I felt Myu was let down. Because something really bad happened. And I didn't feel that net, that safety net." She shook her head, leaned back on the couch, and sighed. "In the end, you just don't care."

They are left with themselves, and with obsessive thoughts about Myuran, so far away - and what might eventuate. Small things are clung to, such as letters, or comments from lawyers, as well as the shared past. "We used to always be together," Brintha said. "It was always us three." Chinthu recounted a story of being surrounded by a bunch of menacing kids in the library, when he was seven and Myuran was nine. "This kid pulled out a Swiss Army knife, and Myu ran to the librarian - he was screaming at the librarian, ‘My brother's in trouble!' He was protective of me; he was always there for me." For Brintha, a more recent memory came to mind: Myuran would wrap the family cat in a blanket so you could only see her face, and he'd cradle her like a swaddled baby. "A couple of weeks before he got arrested, he came out holding Princess, waving her paw, saying, ‘Say bye-bye.'"

 "It's sort of hard to be a family," Brintha said. Rajini admitted to no longer being able to function as a mother, so great is her distraction. "They're my children too," she said, gesturing to Chinthu and Brintha, "but it's not the same. He's my oldest son."

Everyone in this story is distracted, to greater or lesser degrees. The threat of annihilation of a loved one eats up the capacity to be present. Time stops, even as it moves forward to a date with a firing squad. "After a while," Rajini said, speaking perhaps not so much of her children, but of the wider world of relatives and friends and colleagues, "everybody else got back to their lives. I go back to the seventeenth of April, 2005. What if that day never happened?" (Later, when I spent time with the Chan family in Bali, Helen Chan, in a moment of terrible candour, had spoken out loud a darker thought: "I wish I didn't have children.")

Rajini Sukumaran had one request when I left: would I please not use the expression ‘convicted drug smuggler' when describing her son. In the grand media narrative of the Bali Nine he is, of course, just that. But I understood, hearing the desperation in her voice, that Myuran is, to Rajini, a continuity of being that came from her womb: all memory, and growth, and joy, in an unending line, to now.

In Kerobokan Prison, Myuran Sukumaran showed me the official ration for a 24-hour period: five slices of soft white bread, a slice of papaya, a small banana and half a cup of overcooked vegetables. Nobody survives in Kerobokan without a family or a girlfriend, or the kindness of other prisoners. Family members tend to bring food in directly. For those not living on Bali, there's a system by which girlfriends become intermediaries, with money provided by the families. Sukumaran's girlfriend is Gita, a softly spoken 27-year-old who visits with food every couple of days.

Andrew Chan's girlfriend is Farah, a shy young Javanese woman who one day was wearing a T-shirt which said, "I am not anti-social - I'm just not real friendly." Farah's mother passed away last year. She has no friends or family in Bali, and is somewhat estranged from her family in Java. They don't approve of her being Chan's girlfriend - "Because," interrupts Chan, smiling, patting her on the knee, "they think I'm going to die." In Bali, as everywhere, the girlfriends of prisoners are not held in high esteem. For Gita, too, having a boyfriend who's both a prisoner and a foreigner is controversial. "People say, ‘Why you do that?' But people don't know how I feel."

I see more of Farah than Gita the week of my visit, because every day after visiting hours Farah had the Chans back to her apartment, where they cooked the food that Farah would take to Andrew later in the afternoon. Farah lives under the shadow of the prison walls, down a rutted laneway, in a low-roofed, one-storey complex. It's as small and simple as an apartment can get: tiled floor, a bed, a small TV, no room for a couch. We all sat cross-legged on the thin ledge of patio outside and ate. It was hard to imagine what you might do with the days, in such cramped circumstances, so far from home. "It's OK," Farah said. "But I'm a bit bored. I just want to know how long he's there for." What would she do, if he ever got out? "I would want to live together. I'd like to live a long life, so I could spend it with Andrew." Does she understand what he's been accused of? "Yes, I've seen it on TV and everywhere, but I don't care. I care about the heart - who Andrew is."

In the visitor's yard, there was an easy intimacy between Farah and Chan. One day, with his family there as well, I watched the tenderness with which Farah sat on one side of him, touching his knee regularly as the conversation flowed, as if needing to know he was there; Mary was on the other side, her arm resting lightly, affectionately, on her brother's shoulder. Chan's collar was turned a little inwards, and his mother, Helen, reached down from her chair, almost absent-mindedly, and turned it the right way out. He didn't flinch, the way most grown sons might be irritated or embarrassed by such an action. He didn't, in fact, appear to notice, chatting away as was his habit. It was a simple, everyday motherly act, invisible.

It is the mothers, Helen Chan and Rajini Sukumaran, who wear their distress most overtly. For Myuran, in the chaos of April 2005, his mother was the lightning rod of his predicament. "I regretted it [my situation] from the day I got arrested. For myself. But a week later, when my mum arrived, that's when it really hit me." Later, that thought expanded. "I don't want to think of how much a strain it is for my family," Sukumaran said. Three death sentences and three years in jail - "I've already seen how bad it is. But 20 years!" And there it was again, that less-than-likely figure.

On a morning when his mother was not there, I asked Chan what he thinks she worries about the most. "Obviously - losing me," he said. "That must haunt her." Another day, Helen wandered off, perhaps to wait in line for the toilet. I saw her a minute later, near the far wall of the yard, gazing around, bewildered, like a character who has just landed in a dream and does not yet know it is a dream. Her eyes passed over the whole scene - all of us, all the other prisoners huddled with their families, the guards in their crisp uniforms - and upwards, to the middle distance, where the barbed wire runs along the high wall. She gazed about her, for perhaps a minute, unnoticed by her family. She seemed to me, from that distance of 15 metres, as she stood there washed out in the harsh sun outside the shade of the awning, to be panting, like a wounded animal, dazed and exhausted, trying to work out what next move to make. She seemed to be trying to see the scene - all these young men in blue shirts, her son one of them - with an outsider's eyes, from a distance, to make some sense of it. I saw, at that moment, a haunted woman, for whom some very precise point in the near future loomed spectrally in front of her. Near her, on the ground, lay a welcome mat.

What I found haunting, the more I visited, was the smallness of the life inside those walls. At different times I asked Chan and Sukumaran to describe a full day in detail. It felt as if they were padding, to put on a brave face; the lack of things to do took up hours, whole afternoons. What was sad was not the idea of that idle eternity, but the way they both seemed embarrassed to recount it. There's only so much Wilbur Smith you can get through in a lifetime.

Throughout my visit, Andrew Chan remained chipper and lively, always happy to talk on any topic. In prison, he has turned to a religion that he'd vaguely, in childhood, paid heed to. "Faith is like at Westfields," he told me, "the big shopping malls - you know, the sliding doors? If you're just going to stand there, do you think the door's just going to open? No! But if you walk towards the door, it opens. See, you've got to walk towards it for it to happen."

I wasn't sure what to make of the Chan sermons - he delivered them enthusiastically, when quizzed - so I tried to take them at face value. The young know everything; but in a prison, it's as if a spotlight had been turned, very brightly, on the absurdity and the hollowness of that knowing.

"God didn't do things to Job," Chan told me, though my own memory of that story was that God indeed did, and with malice aforethought. "He allowed things to happen to him. God didn't put me in here. He allowed me being here so I can see him. He allowed things to happen, so that I might learn how to live. How to use my gifts in the most appropriate way, rather than gain for myself. ‘Use it or lose it.' You know that saying? God says, ‘You have gifts. Use them. If you don't use them, I'll give 'em  to someone else.'"

So then, I put it to him, what you're saying is, you didn't use your gifts?

"That's it," he said emphatically. "It's like Romans 8:28. Do you know that one?" (I didn't, off the top of my head.) "It's about turning a bad purpose into a good purpose." Later, when I checked, the verse was more enigmatic: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose." Being pretty sure that the Christian purpose is to help others, I asked Chan the next day how he would change things in the prison if he could. "Give people an agenda," he replied. "Something to look forward to."

His family arrived; we waved from across the yard, and they picked their way over to us through the dense clusters of prisoners and visitors. Chan guided his mother and father to their low plastic stools. Conversation flew in all directions, and food was distributed, to Sukumaran as well. Vin, Mary's fiancé, a handsome and pensive young man, made sure that everyone was looked after. In a moment alone I asked Ken how he had felt, as the head of the family, on the night of the arrest. "He just surprised me," Ken said, sadly, and let the statement hang. "But nothing worse can happen than that. As long as he cannot be dead." And if Andrew was somehow given 20 years, how would you feel? "Oh, yeah ... that's good enough. He's still young. A lot of opportunity. But the death penalty - definitely, I don't think I can live with that."

 Ken looked across to Andrew, who was deep in conversation with Mary and Vin. "Anyway, he's talking a lot more sense," he said. "When he was young, he talked a lot of stuff. Today, say this; next day, say that. But now he seems like a grown-up person." I asked: Is there anything you would get in here for Andrew if you could? Ken thought about it for a while and said, "Food. Enjoyment. More happy."

The death penalty says to the world: There are crimes for which society's need for justice can only be requited by the death of the wrongdoer. Yet this ritualised revenge is often kept hidden from view. We are "debased" by the death penalty, said the British politician and feminist Baroness Sumerskill, though "we manage to escape from any deep sense of shame by paying a man to break the culprit's neck behind high walls." Camus argued that if society really believed its own words about the appropriateness of the death penalty, "we would be shown the heads. Executions would be given the same promotional campaign ordinarily reserved for government loans or a new brand of apéritif." "We must either kill publicly," he wrote in his 1958 essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine', "or admit we do not feel authorised to kill. If society justifies the death penalty as a necessary example, then it must justify itself by providing the publicity necessary to make an example."

Saudi Arabia has no qualms about this. Individual executioners develop mass followings of fans who admire and discuss their public bearing, or the elegance of their blows. Gary Keenan witnessed the deaths of three Nigerian drug traffickers in a public square in 1997, and wrote about it in the Irish Times. The beheading was carried out after the midday prayer, and Keenan describes the mad scramble for vantage points as the mosque emptied; the white marble plinth onto which the prisoners were gently led; the hubbub suddenly stopping as the executioner pulled his long curved sword from its scabbard; the prisoners kneeling, with their wrists handcuffed behind their backs and tied by a cord to their feet; the executioner's decisive one-armed swing ("a one-handed back swing of a golf club came to mind"), and his pausing only to lightly wipe the bloodstained blade on the shirt of each newly-headless torso. Afterwards, men - they are all men, of course - search Keenan's face for a reaction. "I could read what their eyes told me - 'That's how we do things here.'"

Reading Keenan's article, I kept thinking about that back swing, about such public scrutiny, about the need for technical and professional competence, and I knew without any doubt that this must be a man who practises long hours in privacy. On a trussed dummy with a detachable head? On watermelons? I tried to imagine the kind of man who would aspire to such art.

For Camus, at the moment of execution "society is reduced at one blow to that condition of primitive terror in which nothing can be judged and all equity, all dignity, have vanished ... The sense of powerlessness and solitude of the fettered prisoner, confronted by the public coalition which has willed his death, is in itself an unimaginable punishment."

In Farah's tiny apartment, down the laneway beside the prison, Helen Chan busied herself for hours. She and Ken cooked for us all. Then, after we cleared the dishes away, she started all over again, and cooked the food that Farah would take to Andrew. "When I see him, it all comes back," Helen said. "Just seeing him." You can read in her tired face the sleeplessness: the permanence and the presence of this suspended life. The weight.

All through the week, it was Ken and Mary and Vin who did the talking, and I had imagined that Helen didn't want to: her few answers thus far had seemed to cause her such pain. Nonetheless, I asked her, as the afternoon wore on, if there was anything she'd like to say.

   She perched on a plastic chair, as if she'd been waiting for just this moment, and took a deep breath. The words came out in a torrent. Every now and again she gasped, sobbing. "For these past three years," she said, "whenever I think about Andrew, I always want to cry. Because in my eyes, he's always been the most obedient ... Maybe the reason why he has chosen this wrong pathway is because he's young and can't think straight. I feel it's my fault because I didn't have enough time to look after Andrew. I blame myself for working too much. I feel sorry to Andrew because it's my fault for not being able to look after him and give him the right path. Andrew is so young - when this happened to him he was only 21.

"All I want is anything but the death penalty. I just hope that Andrew is happy here. I've helped the best I can, financially and emotionally. I just hope he's happy and safe. All I can do now is put myself in God's hands. I can't sleep every single night. All I think about is Andrew. I feel so upset because I can't do anything more. I can only put my hands and rest my faith with God, to hope that he will find a path. That's it." She nodded her head.

The rooster scratched in the yard. The spools turned on the tape recorder. Nobody spoke. Then, after a while, she continued. "Before I came to Bali, I had a million things I wanted to say to Andrew. But once I see him, I don't know how to say it. When I come to see Andrew, I don't know how to start the conversation and I don't know what to say to him. I say, ‘Take care,' and ‘I love you.' If I talk any more, I get very depressed, and there's just not many words that will come out."

Another long pause. Could she put into words one of those million things?

Helen drew breath. Everybody I interviewed was at pains to say they are not angry; but this looked like anger. Her voice rose to a pitch. "I can only ask Andrew: ‘I've given you everything that a kid could ask for - shelter, food, everything - and why did you choose this path?"

Her shoulders sagged; she seemed expended. She stared off to the sky, where high in the distance flapped great black kites in the shapes of birds - a Balinese custom. "I've left it to fate," she said at last. "I don't care how other people look at me now; the only thing I care about is Andrew. Ever since this happened, I've never blamed Andrew. I've only blamed myself. No matter how naughty he is, he's still my son. If I leave him now, there's no one else to look after him. I just pray that however long Andrew is here, he is happy. As long as he is happy, I am happy. As long as I'm alive, I will look after him. And after I'm gone, it will be up to his brother and sisters."

"Grieving," wrote the American poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch, "is falling in love in reverse." Perhaps what I saw, in the mothers, in their distress, was a premature version of this. A mother falls in love afresh at the birth of each child, and wisdom says it is unnatural for the child to predecease her.

In 2002, a group of fervid terrorists sent a van loaded with a crude fertiliser bomb down one of Kuta's narrow, hedonistic streets, and blasted 202 people, 88 of them Australians, to pieces. Many of them were young; their parents have outlived them. John Howard cannily judged the public mood when he said that he would not oppose the death penalty in the case of the Bali bombers. The comment didn't jar: Neither would I, I thought. Perhaps I was comparing the Bali bombers' malign intent with the Bali Nine's stupidity, and finding the former more worthy of an ultimate retribution than the latter.

For Julian McMahon, no such distinctions are tenable. While he cares very deeply for Chan and Sukumaran, he would defend, with equal passion, the Bali bombers. "I do not accept the logic," he said, "that to demonstrate my disapproval of you killing - or drug trafficking - I will order you to be killed." He simply believes that the death penalty is wrong, and that there will come a time when the world looks back on capital punishment as it does today on slavery: how did we ever think that was normal?

George Orwell understood, perhaps better than most, that life was a series of freedoms, located inside the individual consciousness and subject to the whims of the State; that is why, he believed, it is so important that we strive to get the State right. In the 1920s, serving with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, he witnessed a hanging, about which he wrote in 1931.

Two warders marched on either side of the prisoner, with their rifles at the slope; two others marched close against him, gripping him by arm and shoulder, as though at once pushing and supporting him. The rest of us, magistrates and the like, followed behind. Suddenly, when we had gone ten yards, the procession stopped short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened - a dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. It came bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together. It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah. For a moment it pranced round us, and then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face. Everyone stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog.

"Who let that bloody brute in here?" said the superintendent angrily. "Catch it, someone!"

A warder, detached from the escort, charged clumsily after the dog, but it danced and gambolled just out of his reach, taking everything as part of the game. A young Eurasian jailer picked up a handful of gravel and tried to stone the dog away, but it dodged the stones and came after us again. Its yaps echoed from the jail walls. The prisoner, in the grasp of the two warders, looked on incuriously, as though this was another formality of the hanging. ...

At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide ...

He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone - one mind less, one world less.

Each day in Bali, when I left the prison, the world seemed immense, and I felt suddenly less tired. Each night in my hotel, I washed from my wrist the purple stamp all visitors are marked with, and I would lie on the bed, the fan whirring gently above me, and think of the day's events. I would think about Andrew and Myuran, and their mothers and families. After a while I would switch on the TV, to try and zone out. I hoped, for Chan's and Sukumaran's sakes, that they might learn to make peace with their circumstances, and find a way of living in there.

Sorting through that stack of Van Nguyen's prison writings, I came across a sheet of paper written at 4 am on 2 December 2005, two hours before he died, on which were scrawled instructions relating to matters such as the scattering of his ashes, or which friends were to receive copies of his diary. "Julian, Lex, Joseph," reads one, "please write my eulogy for I have run out of time." The penultimate point resembles a dry one-liner: "I wanted to make a calendar but ran out of time."

Everybody wants to buy some time. In Kerobokan, Chan and Sukumaran dream of a "sentence with a number". Scott Rush, another of the Bali Nine and also on death row, spoke of this desire in an interview with the Age last year. "Every morning I wake up and I see ... what my life has become. Sometimes I'm strong towards it; sometimes it just makes me feel like a worthless human being. But if I was to be executed, I don't want to be executed ... without giving something back to the world, which I believe I haven't done."

Late one visiting hour, Myuran Sukumaran bowed his head, cross-legged on the reed mat in front of the growing pile of torn-up tissues, then looked up at me, blinking, as if in a daze. "I don't want this to be my life," he said. "I don't want this to be all there is."

Sukumaran's desires have become, like Chan's, very stark, and very elemental. Life and Death are with them always now - big abstractions, but very real. Yet they have no way of knowing, as the dog seemed to know, how things will pan out, or if that next puddle on the path is the last one.

"May all our dreams and wishes come true; be duly answered, and in due course," Van Nguyen wrote from prison, a year before he died. Andrew Chan, like many who find themselves in disastrous predicaments, wishes he could turn back the clock. Given that it only moves forward, his next best dream is the one where it moves forward for a while yet. "I'm not saying, ‘Release me today, or tomorrow, or next week, or next year,'" he said, lightly tapping his rolled-up copy of Rugby League Week in the palm of his hand to the rhythm of his words. "But I am saying, ‘Release me.'"

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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