Bali Nine: Execution by firing squad

In April of 2005, nine Australians were apprehended in Bali and found to be collectively in possession of 8.3kg of heroin with plans to smuggle the drugs over the Australian border. By 2006, seven members of the group had received sentences ranging from 20 years to life imprisonment, whilst the two deemed the ringleaders of the group, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were sentenced to death by firing squad. Ten years after sentencing in Indonesia, Chan and Sukumaran have exhausted all appeals and face execution by firing squad within the next month. To date, Australian pleas for clemency have failed and the added time pressure has Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott taking a controversial approach at best.

In a televised appeal to the Indonesian government on behalf of Chan and Sukumaran earlier this week, Abbott highlighted the friendship of the two nations before reminding President Widodo of the $1 billion in aid sent during the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, drawing a link that was widely received as a threat in Indonesia.

Image courtesy of Davidelit © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Davidelit © 2012, some rights reserved.

President Widodo has consistently taken a hard lined approach when it comes to drugs and the death penalty, upon election he vowed to uphold all of the 133 death penalty convictions in the country, of which 57 are drug related. He has made it explicit he sees the executions as separate from national relations; clemency is not to be granted as a friendly favour or, as Foreign Minister Julie Bishop elaborated, an act of reciprocity for past acts of humanitarian aid.

Despite Bishop’s attempts at clarification, Abbott’s reference to the tsunami aid granted in 2004 has sparked a public backlash. Indonesians in Aceh, the province most affected by the Boxing Day Disaster, have responded to the incendiary comments by launching a public fundraising campaign, ‘Coins for Abbott’, to repay Australia the $1 billion in aid. The campaign’s message has also served as a reminder to Australia that a deterioration in bilateral relations harms not only Indonesia, but Australia as well, with both nations collaborating heavily in areas such as border control, counter-terrorism initiatives, and defence.

Despite President Widodo’s later acknowledgement of the comments as non-threatening, campaigner’s have worked to highlight Indonesia’s independence, a public response that some in Australia fear will only strengthen Widodo’s resolve to follow through with the executions. Abbott’s comments have been effective only in undermining Indonesian’s sense of independence, completely distracting the issue of two Australian citizens facing the firing squad. The ‘Coins for Abbott’ campaign has little to do with public support of the death penalty, but rather in protest of Australia’s alleged attempts to ‘collect’ on past acts of foreign aid. In this sense, Abbott has failed. Rather than rallying a public against the application of capital punishment, Abbott’s comments have set the stage for a deterioration in relations whether Indonesia follows through with the executions or not.

The case, dubbed the ‘Bali Nine’, has become emblematic of the tensions faced when combatting transnational crime along national lines. Transnational criminals on such a scale have the potential to serve as the subjects of a targeted collaboration, or, in the case of the Bali Nine, a diplomatic nightmare. Transnational crime has nations operating in new territory so to speak, establishing new opportunities for both international cooperation and conflict.

The Bali Nine group was arrested in Indonesia in April of 2005 after authorities received names, passport numbers, and other evidence suggesting links to the illegal drug trade from Australian Federal Police (AFP). The group was held under surveillance by Indonesian police a week prior to the arrest; during which time sufficient evidence was gathered for their eventual conviction.

Whilst both Indonesia and Australia deem drug smuggling criminal, they disagree on the form justice should take. Australia, with the support of the international community and NGO groups such as Amnesty International, is staunchly against the death penalty, especially in cases of drug offenses. In the aftermath of the arrest, the AFP was criticized for allowing the arrests to occur in Indonesia rather than waiting for the group to cross the border, a move that would have ensured protection from the death penalty.

From the Australian perspective, Indonesia’s decision to apply the death penalty in the case of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran of the Bali Nine transformed the case from an international collaboration to a diplomatic standoff. The AFP contributed vital evidence in the case of the Bali Nine that was crucial to a conviction, however in this process of international collaboration, Australia’s ability to determine sentencing was compromised.

Despite his recent inauguration in October 2014, this is not the first time President Widodo has been involved in a diplomatic stand off. In January of this year both the Netherlands and Brazil recalled their foreign ambassadors from the nation in response to the execution of their citizens under similar drug related charges. Widodo did not grant a stay of execution despite representations made by both nations and public outcry from the international community. In the case of the Dutch and Brazilian nationals however, the Netherlands and Brazil were uninvolved in the investigative and trial process; their sole involvement in the case was diplomatic pleas for clemency. However, the case of the Bali Nine involved international police cooperation prior to Australia’s diplomatic attempts at securing a stay of execution, highlighting added complexities that can come with tackling transnational crime. The case exemplifies the balance that must be struck when facing competing policy interests, and the inevitable aftermath that comes with compromise. Australia’s botched attempts at diplomatic intervention have left the death penalty an unquestioned, if not strengthened element of the Indonesian penal system, with Chan and Sukumaran predicted to be only in the very first round of casualties.