Looking away from the death penalty abroad is collusion

By Brigid Delaney
From: Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 2010

Globalisation has swept the world, but the mediaeval remedy remains.

Poor Colin Campbell Ross. The 29-year-old Victorian was hanged in 1922 for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl. It was later found that they got the wrong man.

On Monday, Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls formally returned Ross’s cremated remains to his family.

In 1981, France’s Justice Minister abolished the death penalty, saying it was untenable as it depended on the impossible premise of “totally responsible guilty parties” and “absolutely infallible judges”.

French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy said recently, with a note of Gallic exasperation, “To think we still have to argue against the death penalty”.

In the case of the Bali nine, Scott Rush, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are literally arguing for their lives. They may have admitted various levels of culpability in their roles after the April 2005 heroin bust, and it is proper they should be brought to account, but the great injustice here is that the punishment does not fit the crime. Moreover, the punishment should be regarded as a crime.

It’s interesting watching Australian politicians on this matter – their responses speak somehow to character, like a low tide revealing water marks; the Christian who thinks that only God has the power to take life, the humanist who recoils at such awesome power invested in the state, and the diplomat who believes state sovereignty is sacred.

The narrative that engulfs death row cases flows on regardless: the grainy footage of the arrests, the shock and denial of the accused, the deep distress to the families and friends. The introduction into their lives of the media. The organisation of legal teams. The diplomatic approaches, the hearings and appeals, the religious awakening in prison, the vigils of supporters, the masses, the pleas for clemency, the prayers and the petitions.

Towards the end there is, as there was with Australian Nguyen Tuong Van (executed almost five years ago in Singapore for drug trafficking), a sort of public turning. Compassion for the prisoner, sorrow for his family, an acknowledgment that perhaps people can change. Then a lump in the throat, or sudden tearfulness watching the evening news when you hear he has been hanged.
But the central, unmovable thing in all this activity is the legal system that supports the death.

It is before such a legal system that many objections wilt, where we answer our own disquiet about the death penalty with a fey “well, it’s their law, so we have to abide by their punishment”, as if the legal systems of others were beyond critique. As if they never get it wrong.

Sovereignty is the trump card and for many our inner diplomat speaks louder than our inner Christian or humanist. But what if you believe that the immovable thing, the thing at the centre of it all, is not the legal system but the sanctity of life?
While globalisation has swept the world and continues to radically transform cultures and economies, the barbaric, mediaeval ”remedy” of the death penalty remains like a recessive gene in a body that has successfully evolved and adapted to modern life.

You wouldn’t recognise parts of Shanghai or Beijing, so modern have they become, yet China executes unreported thousands (sending the bill for the single bullet to the families). In December 2009, in great secrecy, they executed Akmal Shaikh, a mentally ill Briton accused of drug smuggling.

You may go to Singapore to buy the most advanced electronic gear (and so cheap) – yet that is where they killed 25-year-old Nguyen with a noose, where he went dignified and prayerfully to his death.

You may go to Bali for an Eat, Pray, Love experience when down the road is Kerobokan prison and the young men are in sweaty little rooms with their lawyers and their hopes.

And the US, where 3000 men and women are waiting in dread (maybe after a while in a kind of toxic boredom) to be put to death by the state. Why do we tolerate the continued existence of this?

Anyone like me who studied humanities at a university in the ’90s had it drilled into them not to assume your legal system is better or more enlightened than theirs.

But what is this triumph of cultural relativism in the face of the great opportunity that exists for everyone of personal transcendence? That is the unforgettable lesson Nguyen taught us, and repeated in the Kerobokan transformations of Sukumaran and Chan – the computer and art classes they are teaching the other prisoners, their faces more open and luminous with each court appearance.

How is it possible to accept the sovereignty of countries where the legal “remedy” is death?

There are some things so fundamentally abhorrent that to cough politely and look away is uncomfortably close to collusion, at one remove from some baying mob in Tehran gathered at the scaffolding in the square.

Brigid Delaney is a former lawyer, journalist and author of This Restless Life.