Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan are criminals, they would be the first to admit that. They committed a crime facilitating a scourge in society; trying to export drugs to Australia that are illicit, that fuel crime and that destroy lives. They deserve punishment for their crime, but not death.
Some would argue that for trying to profit from a trade that destroys lives, to take away their lives is a fitting punishment. Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us probably see the appeal of such simple logic, even if only in a small way. The adage of an ‘eye for an eye’ is an old one in humankind; that a wrong against an individual or society should be returned in kind. But as an erudite student from Sydney University said on Twitter this evening, an eye for an eye makes the world blind. International law frowns on the death penalty, grudgingly accepting its place only for the very worst offences, a categorization not likely to include being the middle managers of a drug smuggling attempt.
There’s an argument that their deaths will serve a greater purpose, acting as a deterrent to future drug smugglers and helping to stymie the scourge of illicit drugs that societies across Asia are contending with. We need only look at the evidence to see that as a measure to deter drug smuggling, the prospects are poor. The imposition of the death penalty in Malaysia and Singapore was ineffective against drug smuggling, and more broadly the death penalty is not a reliable deterrent against crime. To take two lives to send a message of deterrence is futile.
What then has been gained from their execution?
The answer is nothing. There is no gain, only an ending marked by lost chances.
On ABC’s Q&A program recently, Malcolm Turnbull said that setting aside the death penalty would be a sign of strength. He was right. Go beyond the domestic politics that explain President Joko Widodo’s stubbornness, and you realise Indonesia had a chance to demonstrate that it was a country capable of mature and enlightened justice; to set aside the death penalty in favour of imprisonment would have been to the credit of an aspiring middle-power. Indonesia gains nothing from this, if anything, they lose by not grasping that chance.
More to the point, two men lose their lives, lives filled with bad decisions which ultimately led to where they were, but lives which also tell the story of reform. Behind bars these men demonstrated the hope that can be achieved through the criminal justice system. They demonstrated that those who have done wrong can be reformed, can be productive, and can be mentors to others who have done wrong and are setting out on their own path of reform and redemption. So successful that process has been for these two men, so strong the message it sends, that even their jailer, the chief of the prison, asked that their lives be spared.
The justice system is so often seen as a place for endings; for when families have broken up; for when individuals have thrown their lives away through criminality. Yet the justice system can, and indeed must also be seen as a beginning. It must be more than a dumping ground for society’s ills, it must be a stepping stone towards reform whenever possible. For Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, not only was it possible, thus far it had been successful. That success now is ended, the possibilities unfulfilled.