The execution of the three Bali bombers in 2008 was a low point in Australia's
opposition to the death penalty. Both the Howard and Rudd governments expressed
their support for the executions, undermining Australia's commitment to
As another member of the Bali bombing plot, Umar Patek, stands trial in
Jakarta, it is essential that the government not repeat this mistake. To do so
would further compromise Australia's ability to raise the issue of the death
penalty with Indonesia, just as our key regional neighbour is at a crossroads
regarding capital punishment.
Why should Australians be concerned with the death penalty in Indonesia? For
one thing, it is the only country in the world where Australians are on death
row. Only a plea for presidential clemency now stands between Bali 9 members
Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and their execution. Abolition in Indonesia
would save Chan and Sukumaran, and the other 112 Indonesians and foreigners on
Indonesia is also important because it could be a domino for abolition of the
death penalty across south-east Asia. As the region's largest nation and the
world's most populous Muslim country, an abolitionist Indonesia would be better
placed to influence other countries than the region's three existing
abolitionist states, the Philippines, Cambodia and East Timor.
Abolition in south-east Asia would conform to Australia's stated support for a
universal end to the death penalty. It is also of pragmatic interest, given the
last 4 Australians executed were each hanged in either Malaysia or Singapore.
Why is Indonesia at a crossroads, and what are the prospects for abolition? On
the one hand, the death penalty is written into a range of legislation and has
strong supporters pushing for its retention or even for its intensified use.
The courts have passed up two recent opportunities to repeal death penalty
statutes and capital punishment appears to have majority public support. Nor
has there been an overall reduction in its use under democratic rule.
On the other hand, there are enough forces pushing for abolition or moderation
to suggest a reconsideration of the death penalty is possible. Indonesia
executes few people compared to countries such as China, Iran and the United
States. It has not carried out any executions at all since 2008, although the
courts continue to hand down death sentences.
The inclusion of the death penalty in new laws is strongly debated, with some
legislation such as the human trafficking law omitting the punishment. There is
also a new opportunity coming for the courts to reconsider capital punishment,
as 2 death row inmates have filed a challenge to the constitutionality of the
death penalty for aggravated robbery occasioning death.
The most important factor, however, is concern for Indonesian citizens facing
the death penalty abroad. As of December, 217 Indonesians faced possible
execution overseas, mostly in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and China. The Indonesian
government has come under intense pressure to advocate for these citizens since
the execution of an Indonesian domestic worker in Saudi Arabia last year.
Many Indonesians say as long as Indonesia retains the death penalty
domestically, the government lacks a moral basis to advocate for citizens
What could the Australian government do to encourage abolition in Indonesia?
Scholars have proposed Australia engage other Asian abolitionist states to
encourage Indonesia to take steps towards abolition. This approach is worth
focusing on, although in reality Indonesia is more likely the domino that could
influence other south-east Asian nations to do away with it, rather than vice
Australia could also explore bilateral options such as encouraging abolition
through law enforcement co-operation. The government should signal its
opposition to any and all executions in Indonesia, even when it is politically
costly within Australia. This must include the Patek case if he receives a
death sentence. No advocacy will work if Australia is not itself a consistent
and principled opponent of the death penalty.
The government must signal its genuine intent to encourage abolition, while
acknowledging that Australia is not in a position to dictate terms. Though it
will be Indonesia that determines whether or when it will abolish the death
penalty, Australia can and should do more to encourage it.
(source: Opinion; Dave McRae is a research fellow in the East Asia program at
the Lowy Institute for International Policy. His report A Key Domino?
Indonesia's Death Penalty Politics was published yesterday----Sydney Morning