It was 12:30 AM, April 29, 2015. The eight prisoners were brought out and tied to a cross-like figure. Blindfolds were rejected because they wanted to see their executioners. Each prisoner had 12 soldiers assigned to them. Nine soldiers’ guns were loaded with blanks while only 3 had live ammunition, so that no soldier knew who fired the fatal shot. The prisoners sang Amazing Grace. At the signal, shots rang out, and all went silent. Within 3 minutes, the prisoner was dead.
Among the prisoners were two Australians, Andrew Chan 31 and Myuran Sukumaran 34. They were part of the ‘Bali Nine’ arrested in 2005 and were executed for drug trafficking in Indonesia.
The foreign execution of the two Australians, the first in nearly a decade, brought back to the fore the issue of capital punishment, also known as the death penalty. The term comes from the Latin term capitalis, a reference to the head and beheading. A state exercises capital punishment when they take the life of the convicted person as recompense for their crime.
In the ‘old days,’ there were various means of execution, including crucifixion, guillotine, sawing in two, burning, flaying, suffocation, dismemberment and other methods too hideous to mention. Today, the death penalty comes by stoning, lethal injection, electrocution, firing squad, beheading, hanging, gas chamber, and shooting.
Capital punishment is, by its very nature, highly controversial. The European Union, in Article 2 of its Charter of Fundamental Rights, strictly forbids it, as does the 47 member Council of Europe. In addition, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted several non-binding resolutions calling for a moratorium on capital punishment. The eventual goal is to abolish it totally.
Despite these stances, only 40% of the world’s population live in countries that do not have the death penalty. The four most populous countries on earth still practice executions: China, India, the United States of America, and Indonesia.
Indonesia is a sovereign country and in an age where national sovereignty is being eroded by the day through such entities as the United Nations and the European Union, it is worth remembering and preserving. In addition, Indonesia is a vitally important neighbour to Australia and Asia Pacific.
Drug trafficking is a very serious offence which has caused untold suffering and death to millions, while lining the pockets of the criminals. A tough approach to drug usage and trafficking will be much more effective than the soft version. However, does it really necessitate the death penalty?
Some powerful arguments exist for the abolition of capital punishment. First, there is the possibility of executing an innocent person, compounding the tragedy because the punishment is irreversible. Reform and rehabilitation are also ruled out for the same reason. The death penalty is often the instrument of autocratic and totalitarian regimes more than democratic ones, which means the possibility of torture and abuse are ever-present, despite supposed safeguards. For those who think it will ‘save money’ because the taxpayer does not have to pay for the life-long incarceration of a felon, think again: it is estimated that one high-profile execution cost the American taxpayers $2 million due to numerous appeals and the cost of the execution itself. Proponents say that capital punishment will deter others from committing crime but this is highly questionable. Some even say that the death penalty was practiced in the Bible; indeed it was (the crucifixion of Jesus being the prime example) but this does not mean God endorses it today during this age of grace.
Australians were understandably outraged when Chan and Sukumaran were executed. There have been grassroots calls to boycott our near neighbour with hashtags #boycottbali and #boycottindonesia. Why was the anger so high? Here are three reasons:
1. Death penalty: Australia abolished the death penalty in 1967. Ronald Ryan was the last person to be legally executed. Even for the most heinous of crimes, like the mass murder of 36 people at Port Arthur, Tasmania in March 1996, Tasmanian Martin Bryant received multiple-life sentences in prison. The last time an Australian was executed overseas was Van Nguyen in Singapore, December 2005. Even for Australians who theoretically support the death penalty, the fact is that after almost 50 years, we are simply not use to it. They could have second thoughts if the gallows come up again.
2. ‘Fair Go’ mindset: Giving people of a fair-go is integral to Australian culture. Chan and Sukumaran were 21 and 24 respectively when they committed their crime and spent 10 years in prison, nearly a third of their lifespan. They were declared completely rehabilitated, no small feat, and established programs to help other prisoners. Yet, repeated calls for mercy were denied and they faced the firing squad anyway.
3. The Christian connection: Although briefly alluded to by the mainstream media, this is also part of the angst. Though Australia is a secular country in terms of governance and civil culture, there is a strong Christian underpinning. Every 5 years, the Australian census reveals that 2/3s of the population identify themselves with Christianity. This also undergirds the disappointment and anger at the executions of the two young Aussies. First, both men expressed remorse over their drug trafficking. Andrew Chan especially did so to his family and Australia. Second, they showed what the Bible calls the ‘fruit of repentance.’ They weren’t merely apologising ‘because they got caught.’ They lived their lives as men who wanted to get it right. Hence, the cultural and rehabilitation programs established at Karobokan Prison at Bali. Chan went even further: he underwent theological training and was ordained into Christian ministry. It is a rare thing but true: a prisoner who becomes a fully credentialed minister in prison. From a Christian perspective, when someone repents - with real fruit - forgiveness and mercy should be extended. Humanely speaking, this was not the case for the young pair. So on April 29, 2015, at the Nusa Kambangan ‘execution island,’ the two young Aussies and six other men faced the firing squad.’
4. Justice: Was justice served that night on Nusa Kambangan?’ It depends who you speak to. In our fallen world, true justice is often elusive - innocent people suffer while guilty ones prosper (only temporarily however). As for me, let me give you a tip: it is always better to ‘err’ on the side of mercy. Jesus said it best in the Sermon on the Mount - blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). When men like Chan and Sukumaran, facing death with Amazing Grace on their lips and Christ in their hearts, there can be no question that they are now experiencing the greatest mercy of all.