Indonesia is about to execute two foreign drug smugglers – so why can't Australia do anything about it?

Two members of the Bali nine drug traffickers are likely to be executed soon, marking the end of a long struggle to save their lives

Doug Bolton
Tuesday 28 April 2015 09:20

Fears are growing in Australia that two members of the 'Bali nine' - a group of Australians convicted of smuggling heroin into Australia from Indonesia - will be executed within days, after the Indonesian government summoned the Australian embassy to a meeting on the penal island of Nusakambangan, where the executions may take place.

The prisoners, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have been through a long ordeal of appeals since they were sentenced to death in February 2006 for planning to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin from Indonesia to Australia.

The case has been a long and complex one - involving interventions from the Australian government, a continuous process of denied appeals, and growing panic that the Australians will be executed.

Who are the Bali nine?

The Bali nine is the name given to a group of Australians convicted of drug trafficking in 2006. The group is made up of Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumaran, Martin Stephen, Scott Rush, Matthew Norman, Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen, Renae Lawrence, Michael Czugaj and Si Yi Chen

After being monitored by Indonesian police, who were aided by information from the Australian Federal Police who believed some of the group had previously smuggled heroin into Australia, all nine were arrested as the smuggling operation started.

Chan was removed from a plane bound for Australia at Bali's airport, and was believed to be the person who would collect the heroin in Australia. Nguyen, Sukumaran, Chen and Norman were arrested in Kuta, Bali, in possesion of heroin. The rest were arrested on another plane, and had heroin strapped to their bodies.

Six of the nine are currently serving life sentences in Indonesia. Renae Lawrence is scheduled for release in 2026. The remaining two, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, said to be the ringleaders of the operation, were given the death penalty.

They have submitted multiple appeals, but all avenues have now been exhausted and the executions look set to go ahead.

The nine's convictions are just one part of a crackdown on drug trafficking in Indonesia.

Why has there been a crackdown?

According to the Indonesian branch of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Indonesia is a major hub for drug trafficking, due to the high levels of drug addiction in the nation, its long, difficult to guard coastline, the demands of a large young population, its central location in south east Asia and its proximity to Australia.

Indonesia's government says there is a drug crisis - according to their statistics, drugs abuse kills 40 people in Indonesia every day, and the estimated number of drug addicts is expected to reach 5.8 million this year.

Led by President Joko Widodo, the government is taking a very hard line with drug users and traffickers to try to tackle the problem, imposing the death penalty for drug trafficking and life imprisonment for possession of Group 1 drugs like cocaine, heroin, ecstacy and marijuana - and the authorities often make examples of foreigners who break the rules.

Indonesia gives prisoners three days' notice of their executions, to allow them time to prepare mentally and give final requests.

What has Australia done to stop the executions?

The Australian Federal Police were immediately criticised for letting the group fall in to the hands of the harsh Indonesian justice system, rather than waiting until they were in Australia and arresting them there.

However, Australian Minister for Justice at the time defended the AFP's actions, saying: "What we have are serious allegations as to criminal activity which allegedly occured on Indonesian soil and the Indonesian police acted accordingly."

In January, Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged President Widodo to show mercy to Chan and Sukumaran, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wrote directly to Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi requesting that the mens' lives be spared.

The Australian government has tried to persuade the Indonesians that the men are genuinely remorseful for their crimes, counselling others about the dangers of drugs, and introducing art and computer classes in their prison - Sukumaran recently had his powerful death row art exhibited in London.

Abbott even requested that Indonesia should spare the men to "reciprocate" for the $1 billion aid that Australia gave to the nation after the 2004 tsunami, provoking anger in Indonesia. A boycott of Indonesia has gathered following amongst Australians over the course of the appeals.

Indonesian officials said Australia had made "several approaches to all levels" of the government.

Today, Foreign Minister Bishop requested formal talks with the Indonesians, in a last-ditch effort to save the pair after preparations for their executions were ordered - although the 72-hour notice period has not begun yet.

Acting Prime Minister Warren Truss, who is standing in for Abbott while he is in Turkey for the commemoration of the Gallipoli landings, said: "Our position obviously hasn't changed. We are appealing and will continue to appeal to the Indonesian government not to proceed with these executions."

"We abhor the drug trade but the death penalty is also unacceptable to Australians."

What will happen now?

It seems likely that the lives of the Chan and Sukumaran will not be spared - all avenues of appeal for the two have been exhausted, preparations for their executions have begun, and the calling of the Australian embassy to a meeting on the island where the executions may take place mirrors what happened shortly before Brazilian Rodrigo Gulante's execution was announced.

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