Bali Nine: Australia’s condemnation of Indonesia’s death penalty only reveals our hypocrisy

On 29 April 2015, Australia mourned the death of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who were executed by firing squad in Indonesia. They were ringleaders of the infamous Bali Nine, who were a group of Australians convicted of drug trafficking. Chan and Sukumaran captured the hearts of the Australian public, media and government; we empathised with them because we see them as victims of a flawed Indonesian penal system. We condemned the Indonesian government for carrying out the barbaric act of the death penalty, but how effective are our words when we ourselves are guilty of human rights abuses?

The Bali Nine was arrested in April 2006; they were found guilty of smuggling a total of 8.3kg of heroin, valued at $4million. The members are: Chan, Sukumaran, Si Yi Chen, Michael Czugaj, Renae Lawrence, Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen, Matthew Norman, Scott Rush and Martin Stephens. Bali is a popular tourist destination, famous for its beautiful beaches and rice paddies, but also a haven for drug-trafficking. The group was arrested in Denpasar Airport because the Indonesian authorities received a tip-off from the Australian Federal Police (AFP).  Mike Phelan, the AFP’s current Chief Police Officer, maintained the AFP did the right thing. He said: "It's certainly consistent with government policy and with Australian Federal Police guidelines that we have in relation to dealing in transnational crime as where the death penalty may exist."

The court case battles were intense and dramatic because nine people’s lives was at the hands of Indonesian judges. Indonesia is one of the 32 countries that hands down the death sentence for drug-smuggling.  The final decision was: Lawrence sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, while the rest: Chen, Czugaj, Nguyen, Norman, Rush and Stephens were given life sentences. But, it was Chan and Sukumaran who had more media attention because they were the leaders. The Bali Nine issue was even brought up in diplomatic talks between the two countries’ leaders. The then Australian Prime Minister John Howard pleaded with former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to show mercy.

Chan and Sukumaran appealed for clemency in June 2011 and May 2012, but their fate was sealed in December 2014 when Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, announced the country would not spare convicted drug-smugglers. Therefore Chan and Sukumaran’s presidential pardon was officially rejected. The Australian government tried everything they could to save the two – even offering to exchange prisoners. We expected the Indonesians to offer concessions because we donated a $1 billion aid package to the Tsunami Relief programme.  We thought the Indonesian government would spare Chan and Sukumaran, just as they did with convicted Australian drug trafficker Schapelle Corby, who was caught in October 2004 for smuggling 4.2kg of cannabis into Bali. She was originally given the death penalty but instead she received a 20-year sentence.

In a last ditch effort to pressure the Jakarta, PM Abbott made references to foreign aid: "I would say to the Indonesian people and the Indonesian Government: We in Australia are always there to help you, and we hope that you might reciprocate." Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, said Jakarta could unleash 10,000 asylum seekers into Australia so it would be like a “human tsunami.” These threats just add another layer of complexity in our diplomatic ties because our relations have been hot and cold since our intervention with East Timor’s independence in 1999.

On 27 April 2015, Australia and France cried foul of Indonesia’s penal system, PM Abbott said: "France and Australia share the same attachment to human rights and condemn the death penalty in all places and all circumstances." We expressed our outage through action as well - we summoned our ambassador Paul Grigson back to Canberra and the Prime Minister stopped ministerial visits.

We believe we have the right to denounce Indonesia because we are a signatory of the Second Optional Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims to end the death penalty.  Whenever we see or hear about other countries  committing human rights abuses, we would stand high and mighty and preach about universal rights and freedom.  But beneath our seemingly good image in the world, we have our own track record of atrocious human rights abuses.  

We have a history of treating Indigenous Australians poorly. The Australian government set up the Aborigines Protection Act (Vic) in 1869, which gave “the Governor the power to order the removal of any child from their family to a reformatory or industrial school”.  The removal act is also known as the Stolen Generations, which was essentially genocide under the guise of ‘educating’ Indigenous children. Children taken away from families had no contact with their community, culture and language. The Act ended in 1969, but Indigenous communities continue to face discrimination and inequality. 

In 2010, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination panned the Australian government for not doing enough to address poverty in Indigenous communities; the committee said we have an “unacceptably high level of disadvantage and social dislocation”. The Human Rights Watch report, released in January 2015, found: “Indigenous Australians account for only 3% of Australia’s population [but] they account for 27% of Australia’s prison population. In part because they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, Indigenous Australians are more likely to face stigma and discrimination in employment.”

Secondly, we have earned a reputation for our inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Asylum seekers and refugees are sent to offshore detention centres in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where the conditions of the centres are very dilapidated and ill-equipped. Treatment of detainees came under heavy fire by refugee rights watchdogs such as Refugee Rights Action Network in October 2011 when a Tamil refugee committed suicide in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre. The man suffered from mental health issues and this was not addressed.  He allegedly took his own life because his application to attend a Hindu festival was rejected and this was “the final straw”

According to the Australian Human Rights Watch Commission, since September 2013 there are 6,579 people detained in detention centres. The commission also recorded detainees are not properly cared for and there were 846 reported cases of self-harm from 2012-13.

We reprove Indonesia for using sovereign rights as a defence for their death penalty. Yet, when we are questioned about our handling of asylum seekers, we say this is our national policy.  If we want to promote universal rights, we should address our own human rights issues first before getting on our high horse about other countries’ legal systems.  Our holier-than-thou approach only shows our hypocrisy and a distorted sense of justice.