The Quality of Mercy is strained in the Bali Nine case

There is a sad case developing in Indonesia, with two Australian drug traffickers, who attempted to smuggle heroin out of Bali, on death row and facing execution within the next two weeks.

 Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan had appealed for clemency from the Indonesian president but their requests were denied. With this avenue exhausted, their lawyers are left with only the chance of one more legal maneuver, of further appeal, before the duo face the firing squad.

Online comment took on a particularly harsh reaction to this today. True, there is little sympathy for drug traffickers and perhaps they deserve no relief from their punishment:


Yet, there is something cruel in this lack of sympathy, something which lacks empathy for the most touching part of the story: the mother of one of the men is now facing the prospect of her son’s imminent execution. No sense of pity for what that would mean for a woman to face? Apparently not.

A number of issues in this unpleasant exchange of comments comes up: the right of Australia to request clemency for their citizens who commit crimes in a foreign country. How easy it is to build a narrative of a powerful country intimidating a less powerful one: the Australian PM has talked of “making his displeasure felt” in diplomatic relations with Jakarta. Yet, the same Indonesian President who denied clemency to the pair on death row has not hesitated to seek clemency for Indonesians who are on death row overseas. People and governments from all around the world differ in their view of what makes an appropriate punishment for a crime, and what qualifies someone – if at all – for such a terrible fate.

There is also the matter of the sheer ineffectiveness of the death penalty, its awful, silent finality, and its capital impotence in preventing drug trafficking. Which country is free of drugs? Of all the countries which impose the ultimate punishment on drugs traffickers, none of them are free from drugs. Drugs, and the social ills which attend them, are a global problem; the free market sees to that, with supply meeting demand (and with prices rising accordingly). This point is not to somehow minimize the effect of drugs or to generate apologetics for them, but clearly as a deterrent effect, the death penalty does not work. It may serve to drive them deeper underground, but it does not remove them. Only censorship of news and statistics can create the impression that they have disappeared: as Human Rights Watch records, Singapore statistics are not made public on executions relating to drug-related offenses. In fact, the European Institute for Crime and Prevention records that drug-related crime in Singapore is higher than countries such as Costa Rica and Turkey, and is constantly increasing. Small achievement then in real terms, but the commenters in this exchange seem to believe they are living in an absolutely narcotics-free paradise.


But the real tragedy of a death penalty for this kind of crime is the vulnerability of the drug mule. The landmark case of Yong Vui Kong, whose situation was highly publicized, highlighted once again how the lynchpins in global drug rings are untouchable, shadowy phantoms who evade identification. These are the criminal masterminds who make all of this possible, and by offering desperate, impoverished and very foolish people the chance to make a modest but easy sum of money by carrying a package across the border, guarantee that authorities will send to their death the young and the naïve and the desperate, while the masterminds of it all live anonymous lives of luxury. For Yong Vui Kong, mercy ultimately fell from heaven when the Singapore drug law was changed to allow life imprisonment for those who substantially cooperated with authorities and whose involvement in the process was as just a courier.

The case in Indonesia is tragic and there is no doubt these two need to be locked away indefinitely in punishment of their crime. But what this cruel set of comments displays is a populace unfamiliar with mercy, conditioned to a belief in the most severe of punishments; a lack of empathy for people and their circumstances; and the reliance on a system of justice which weighs the greatest of assets in one hand – a life – with what is in effect a false sense of security in the other. Such an unholy equation ultimately deters – when all is said and done – neither drug lord nor drug mule.

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