Death Penalty

Parliament today debated a motion respectfully urging the Indonesian Government to grant clemency to convicted drug smugglers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, 12 February 2015

For three years as a child I lived in Indonesia—a year in Jakarta and two years in Banda Aceh. It had a profound influence on me as a little boy seeing a country with a great sense of generosity. I remember very warmly the celebrations at the end of Ramadan; the willingness of people in homes in northern Sumatra to welcome us in and offer us a drink—often heavily sweetened coffee which would set my little brother and I off for the next few hours—and to give to us, even though they had so little. I have also seen what it is like on the inside of a jail—not Kerobokan Prison but other prisons in Indonesia. I am aware of the hardships there and that is also relevant in thinking about the role that Andrew Chan has played since his imprisonment.

I have seen, too, the impact of drugs and I understand why, for Indonesia, cracking down on drug smuggling is an important issue. Drugs can ruin young lives. Just as those who traffic drugs tend to be poor and underprivileged, those who use them tend to be poor and underprivileged. And so Indonesia's work to reduce the scourge of drugs in its community has my full support.

But to do so, Indonesia need not employ the death penalty. My plea to President Jokowi is that just as Indonesia has reached out to other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to urge clemency for its own citizens, so, do we now—your Australian brothers and sisters—reach out to you on behalf of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. These are young men—Andrew born in 1984 and Myuran born in 1981. Both committed their crimes nearly a decade ago when they were in their early 20s.

In jail, as other speakers have noted, they have been reformed prisoners. Too often, prison is a place where rehabilitation does not take place, but in the case of these two young men it does indeed seem to have occurred. In the atmosphere of hardship that I referred to earlier, Andrew Chan has become a lay preacher. He has reached out to those around him. He said of his conversion to Christianity:

'When I got back to my cell, I said, ‘God, I asked you to set me free, not kill me.’ God spoke to me and said, ‘Andrew, I have set you free from the inside out, I have given you life!’  From that moment on I haven’t stopped worshipping Him. I had never sung before, never led worship, until Jesus set me free.'

Myuran Sukumaran has become an artist. He has tapped into his creative self and, working with Ben Quilty, has begun to attain something of a reputation for his creative works. They are too young men whose contribution to Indonesia in the years to come could be significant in making a difficult environment a little more bearable for those around them. In his book on the death penalty, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, a United States academic and lawyer, makes the point that all of us are better than the worst thing we have ever done. In the case of Andrew and Myuran this must be true, and their subsequent acts have shown that.

The use of the death penalty is morally wrong and economically ineffective. Australia abolished the death penalty nearly half a century ago, with the last person put to death being Ronald Ryan, put to death by the Bolte government in 1967. So no-one under 48 in Australia has been alive when an execution has taken place here. One of the reasons that we abolished the death penalty was a moral one. We would never dream to say of somebody who had committed a sexual assault that we would punish them on the eye-for-an-eye principal; that the state would in turn commit a sexual assault upon that person. And yet in the case of murder, an eye for an eye is considered by some to be right.

It misses the fact that the justice system can be imperfect and that people on death row have frequently had their sentences overturned, as in the case of Walter McMillan, whose conviction was ultimately overturned by Bryan Stevenson. But it also understates the ability of people to change. A recent review of the literature on the deterrent effect of the death penalty carried out by John Donohue at Stanford University and Justin Wolfers at the University of Michigan has shown very clearly that in the United States there is no deterrent impact. There is no clear evidence that the existence of the death penalty or the number of people put to death reduces the homicide rate. So for these moral and economic reasons, I believe that the death penalty is wrong and should be rescinded. And in the individual cases of Chan and Sukumaran, we in this place call upon the Indonesian government to recognise the hand of friendship extended by some—like the previous speaker, who like me speaks in Bahasa, having lived for three years in Indonesia—who have a great respect for Indonesia and for Indonesians, and a personal respect for President Jokowi, and who call on him to do the right thing by exercising clemency in this case.


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  • commented 2015-02-13 14:45:45 +1100
    While I am against the death penalty for drug crimes, I am a strong supporter of capital punishment in extreme murder cases. Timothy McVeigh, the Bali bombers, and John Muhammed, for example, deserved it. In such cases, anything less than the death penalty displays a shocking lack of regard for the lives of the victims.

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