Bali Nine executions a snub to Australia

A woman places a candle on top of a picture of Andrew Chan. Picture: Getty Images

In November 2005, seven months after the Bali Nine had been caught attempting to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin from Indonesia to Australia, an Australian press pack gathered in the foyer of a posh hotel in Busan, South Korea.

It was waiting for Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong to emerge from a 40-minute face-to-face meeting with John Howard, a meeting that left the Australian PM utterly dejected.

The previous day, in his Sydney office, Howard had spent a harrowing hour with the distraught mother of Nguyen Tuong Van who was in Singapore's Changi Prison awaiting execution by hanging for drug offences.

Bali Nine clemency deal ignored

Kim Nguyen, who had arrived in Australia as a refugee from Vietnam shortly after Van and twin brother Dang were born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980, begged Howard to save her son's life.

Howard said he would pursue the issue but didn't pretend it would be successful.

Lee, an urbane and well-spoken man, emerged from his meeting with Howard to be confronted by Australian journalists suggesting the death penalty was cruel and inhumane.

"It is never a light thing to do, to decide that somebody has to hang," Lee told us, "but we also have to consider the consequences for the families of the drug addicts.

"In this case it was a huge amount being trafficked - nearly 400 grams. If you work it out, it is 26,000 doses of heroin on the street, so it is an enormous amount in terms of the misery it can cause for families through the destruction of lives."

Lee's tone was striking insofar as it mixed firm conviction about his nation's support for capital punishment with a sense of regret and sadness about its inevitable consequence - Nguyen was hanged 15 days later.

In the case of Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, there has been scant reference by Indonesian officials about the enormity of state-sanctioned killing. Indonesian Attorney-General Muhammad Prasetyo's ghastly boast of a clean kill by the firing squad neatly bookended Indonesia's macabre lead-up to the execution.

"All shots were done perfectly. These executions were carried out smoothly and in order - much better than the first round of executions in January," Prasetyo said.

You shudder to think how that first round of killings went.

Defence Minister Kevin Andrews was speaking for many senior people inside Government when he said there had been a "deliberate, calculated snub of Australia".

That Chan and Sukumaran should join six others tied to stakes and shot to death, little more than a day after a judicial commission set a date to investigate allegations of serious corruption by the trial judges was outrageous and appalling.

It was an abomination of process, with tragic consequence and an offence built on many others: the grossly paramilitary way Chan and Sukumaran were transferred from Kerobokan prison, the use of Chan and Sukumaran as selfie props by police officers, allowing photographers to capture preparation of crosses with a predetermined execution date, announcing the 72-hour countdown to the executions on Anzac Day against Australia's wishes.

These were insults, perhaps intentional, that are not simply explained away by Indonesian grim indifference or incompetence.

And for what?

The Australian men whose chests were torn apart by bullets were not the same men arrested by Indonesian authorities in 2005. They had changed. One became an ordained priest, the other a talented artist.

If you are to accept that the death sentence is reserved for those who are beyond redemption, and beyond rehabilitation, then Chan and Sukumaran had proved this precept should not have applied to them.

Whether it's because of an intrinsic sense of inadequacy, resentment towards foreigners or something more sinister, a majority of Indonesia's people wanted them dead.

Troublingly, Indonesian President Joko Widodo was too weak to intervene.

Jokowi, as he is known, bowed to the baying mob. He closed his ears to international opinion and turned his back on justice.

By assenting to mob rule in the false belief it would enhance his authority, Joko failed. The strong show mercy. The strong show the better way. Joko did neither. He did not seek to properly explain himself. Even zero tolerance needs a narrative.

Joko has been exposed as the puppet of his party's figurehead Megawati Sukarnoputri, affirmed earlier this month when the former president - and daughter of Indonesia's foundation president Sukarno - told a political congress that Joko was merely a "party cadre", whose role was to implement party policy. Joko listened from the front row.

As the Jakarta Globe wrote in its editorial this week: "With regards to the planned executions, we doubt that such action is really aimed at creating deterrence.

"We are afraid that it was born out of political strategy of people surrounding Joko, and the President might be only a victim of his aides who provided him with false data and arguments."

Tony Abbott would have instinctively wanted to go hard after the executions.

He did against Russian President Vladimir Putin after the MH17 disaster. But the Prime Minister then had more latitude than European leaders who live in Russia's nuclear shadow and rely on its gas.

Abbott is correct in being cautious. Going very hard against Indonesia to sate an appetite in the Australian community for retribution would have consequences that Australia cannot afford - think asylum seeker boats, the live cattle trade and extremism.

Deeper engagement with Indonesia will be needed, not less. On foreign aid, for example, a lot of money given to Indonesia goes to supporting moderate teaching in Islamic schools. If that money goes, the influence of the n'er-do-wells will increase.

Muslims and non-Muslims are now subject to strict Islamic law in the conservative province of Aceh and Islamic parties are proposing to laws to make the consumption of alcohol punishable by two years jail. A ban on the sale of alcohol at small retailers came into force across Indonesia in mid-April.

These are not developments conducive to enlightenment.

Coupled with a weakened president, Indonesia is potentially on a very regressive slope.

For an Australian PM who came to power promising to be less Geneva, more Jakarta, there are difficult days ahead.