Sorry Facebook, the executions of the Bali Nine duo matter

Originally published on Hijacked (May 6 2015)

Two months ago, at the Kerobokan prison that had been his home for the last decade, Myuran Sukumaran packed up his art studio. Some of his final paintings were carefully collected by family and friends to be displayed in exhibitions as far away as the Netherlands and, perhaps one day, on familiar walls back home.

The very last painting, of Myuran’s heart, was pulled from his new holding cell at Nusakambangan Island only last week.

Hours later, he and fellow prisoner Andrew Chan were shot and killed by a firing squad.

In the days since, their story has been told and told again, cracked open and examined from every angle. Was all due process undertaken by the Indonesian legal system? How could the Australian Federal Police hand over the Bali Nine knowing they would likely be executed?

But there’s another question still echoing down the halls of Facebook, Reddit and the like that I find even more disturbing: why should we care?

Since the Bali Nine duo lost their final bids for clemency, I have seen countless conversations unfold in status updates and tweets all asking the same thing: why does anyone care about the death of two drug smugglers when there are other people dying in the world?

The creation of a scholarship in their names by the Australian Catholic University last week was also met with a fair amount of disgust on social media.

Perhaps on the surface it seems like a fair question – especially given the staggering death toll of the recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal. A large chunk of the news cycle has been stuck on the executions of Myuran and Andrew for most of the year now and, to many people, it seems that has given them undue importance.

But, public discussion about the death penalty does not in any way diminish the scale of other recent tragedies in our minds. One horror of human experience does not cancel another out.

More to the point, while the devastating impact of natural disasters cannot necessarily be controlled (unless we maybe start listening to climate scientists), the death penalty is very much a human invention. And by talking about it we can change it.

That Myuran and Andrew were such shining examples of the prison system working without the death penalty made this case all the more shocking. Both men had reformed and thrown themselves into helping the lives of their fellow inmates: Myuran through sharing his art and Andrew by offering his spiritual counsel.

But for me, this is not just a story about redemption. I stand against the death penalty in all circumstances, from those who are deeply reformed to those who are absolutely guilty and without remorse.

This doesn’t mean that I think serial killers and others who have committed equally as heinous crimes necessarily deserve to live. All it means is that I don’t think any state has the right to kill them. I reject the idea that just because we place the agency of a killing in the hands of some abstract authority such as “the justice system”, that that person’s death automatically becomes something other than murder.

Executions are an outdated punishment left over from the old “eye for an eye” narrative of justice and revenge. Today, they cost far more than life sentences, have no proven links to the deterrence of crime, and have caused the unjust death of countless people who were wrongly convicted down the line of history. The last man ever executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan, was widely considered to be innocent.

Then there’s the terrible toll on the families and friends of those executed, often sentenced alongside them to a lifetime of grief. For them, comments like “about time” and “who cares?” on social media seem especially callous and cruel.

Of course the case of Myuran and Andrew is not the first time the death penalty has been brought to our attention. The UN’s General Assembly has now called for its end five times since 2007. With over 60 per cent of the world’s population still living in countries with capital punishment in effect – including the US – more pressure is needed to get the UN’s moratorium rolling.

And if that pressure comes from the memories of two men from Australia who sang Amazing Grace as they faced down a firing squad, then so be it.

By Sherryn Groch


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