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Sukumaran and Chan: There is still a chance they may not be executed

Indonesia is set to go ahead with the execution of two Australians for drug-smuggling.

The probable execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in the near future has been one of the stories dominating the Australian media over the past few weeks. It has also had wide coverage in the international media.

Some of this coverage has been motivated by a widespread revulsion against the death penalty for any offence that is held by many people (including me), but in these cases the revulsion has been exacerbated by their remarkable rehabilitation over the past ten years in Kerobokan prison in Bali.

As has been widely reported, both Sukumaran and Chan have made a major contribution to the education and rehabilitation of other prisoners and to the reduction in the use of illegal drugs within the prison. They were both shocked to find that illegal drugs were widely available in the prison and resolved to do whatever they to reduce this problem. It seems that they have been reasonably successful in this endeavour.

None of this provides an excuse for their criminal behaviour ten years earlier, but it does underline the fact that they are both quite different human beings from those who were originally sentenced to death. Their dramatic change of attitude and behaviour provides strong support for the proposition that nothing would be achieved by proceeding with the executions.

The Indonesian government is understandably uncomfortable about being lectured by other governments (even though it goes to great lengths to secure clemency for Indonesian offenders who are sentenced to death in other countries), but it will be even more uncomfortable if the executions by firing squad are reported around the world as especially cruel and gruesome. Many "botched" executions have been reported in many different nations around the world, almost regardless of the methods used. Hangings, lethal injections, gas chambers, electrocutions, beheadings and firing squads (the method favoured in Indonesia) have all been found to go wrong in some circumstances.

Andrew Chan has been reported as saying that he is not afraid of death but he is terrified by the possibility of excruciating pain if he does not die immediately after being shot in the heart. His terror may well be justified as an item in this newspaper a few days days ago reported that an Irish priest, Father Charlie Burrows, seven years ago witnessed the execution of two Nigerian heroin smugglers on Nusakambangan, the remote penal island where Sukumaran and Chan are also scheduled to meet the firing squad. Father Burrows said that it took the Nigerians up to eight minutes to die. 

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In a more recent case Father Burrows was asked to support a Brazilian offender who was one of the group of five drug smugglers executed on Nusakambangan in January this year. He was supposed to comfort the offender who was a Catholic by administering the last rites, but due to a misunderstanding he was not allowed on the island that night. Consequently, the Brazilian offender was extremely upset and while weeping uncontrollably had to be dragged from his cell to be strapped to a post to face the firing squad.

As far as Sukumaran and Chan are concerned, once the date for the execution is fixed they will be escorted to Nusakambangan by the elite national police, but, for whatever reason, the local police will be assigned the task of forming firing squads. Each squad will comprise 12 police, but only three of them will be issued with live bullets and the remainder will fire blanks. This means that no-one will know which police officer was directly responsible for the death.

Each firing squad will be controlled by a more senior officer who will carry a pistol which he will use to shoot the offender in the head if it is not certain that the offender is dead. A precise timetable will be issued for each case, with 72 hours notice being given before each execution. The actual shootings are generally scheduled to take place at night, often at midnight.

About two hours before the execution, the offender is escorted from his cell in one of the seven prisons on the island to a clearing in the jungle where he is strapped to a post and a black patch is fixed to his white shirt to show the position of his heart. It is not clear whether artificial lighting is available to assist the shooters to find the target.

The Indonesian President Joko Widodo is no doubt fully aware of the international criticism which will be made if he continues to insist that Sukumaran and Chan must be executed. He should also be aware that if there is any failure or breakdown in any part of the detailed plan outlined above, the criticism will inevitably be even more intense and Indonesia will be seen as not only barbaric but also incompetent and amateurish in that it is unable to conduct executions in a humane manner. Criticism of such intensity is likely to have economic as well as political consequences for Indonesia for many years to come. 

It might be argued that it may not be possible for the public in Australia and elsewhere to know what actually happens on the remote island where executions take place. However, this issue is of such public interest that I have no doubt that many major media organisations have already started negotiations (probably at significant costs) to obtain the facts in the shortest possible time.

There is still time for the president to regain the respect of the international community by granting clemency to Sukumaran and Chan. He would regain even more respect if he also gave an undertaking that he will in future personally consider the details of each case where clemency is sought instead of dismissing all such applications as a matter of general policy.

David Biles is a semi-retired criminologist who lives in Canberra.