After the Indonesian Supreme Court sentenced four Australian citizens to death for trying to smuggle heroin from Bali to Australia, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told a press conference Tuesday night he was "grateful" for Indonesia's tough stance on drug policy. Downer held out little hope that the four, and two others already sentenced to death, would be spared.
Part of a group known as the "Bali Nine," the four Australians had originally been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, but prosecutors appealed the "lenient" sentences, and earlier this week the Supreme Court resentenced them to death. They join two other young members of the "Bali Nine" already sentenced to die in a case involving 18 pounds of heroin.
At the press conference called to confirm the imposition of the death sentences, Downer said the case would not harm relations between the two countries. "We actually urged the Indonesians to be tough on drug trafficking," he said. "The last thing we want is heroin brought into Australia from Indonesia. Don't make any mistake about that. We are grateful to the Indonesians for being tough on drugs. It's just that we don't support capital punishment. That they have arrested people who've been trafficking drugs means those drugs don't come into Australia and innocent Australians, or drug users in Australia innocent or not, aren't going to use those drugs, and that's a good thing."
Despite Downer's sanguine comments, Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, himself a staunch drug warrior, announced he would seek clemency, although he cautioned it would be unlikely. "I don't think people should entertain too many optimistic thoughts because it's difficult, but we will try hard and we will put the case against the death penalty," Howard said late on Wednesday.
Other Australian politicians have protested more loudly. "Judicial murder is what the Indonesian authorities have in mind here. It is a repugnant and barbaric practice," Green Senator Bob Brown told Reuters.
A group of Australian politicians who are members of Amnesty International said they would protest to the Indonesian government. "We should not sit back and say this is their laws and they can do what they want," said government MP Bruce Baird. Meanwhile, the six young Australians confront their imminent mortality.
One of the Australians sentenced to death, 20-year-old Scott Rush, said he was shocked by the ruling and pleaded for help. "This is making my head spin. I am sitting on death, am I?," he said. "At first I didn't want to appeal because of this sort of thing. I was scared and me and my parents were stressed. But everyone said no Australians would be put to death, and now I am on death row. If there is anything people can do to prevent this please make it happen because I need a second chance at life."
That's the way we do things in Indonesia, the country's top cop, General Sutanto said. "In Indonesia, drugs abuse is rampant because punishment has been too lenient. If we are not serious about tackling the problem, drug traffickers will not be deterred," Sutanto told reporters, according to Reuters.
Editor's Note: It's foolishly naive to think that the death penalty does or can deter drug trafficking. After all, many participants in the drug trade already risk death at the hands of their competitors routinely. A government adding a few more bodies to the pile does nothing to fundamentally alter that reality. Much more likely is that it will push the trade into the hands of the most dangerous kinds of criminals who are most comfortable taking the risk.