Only a year after the execution of Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Indonesia is gearing up for another round of executions. Determined to keep it low profile, Indonesian authorities are remaining tight-lipped about the condemned.
If Indonesia has learnt anything from the diplomatic fiasco ignited by last year's execution of 14 death-row inmates, it seems to be this: if you're going to kill drug offenders, and particularly foreign nationals, keep it low profile. Or better still, assemble a line-up from countries that are less likely to remonstrate. Not the lesson, perhaps, that the international community might have hoped for.
As Indonesia gears up for another round of executions, it's becoming depressingly clear that after the intense media coverage of 2015 – the political posturing, the desperate pleas and impassioned headlines – this year's condemned will go to their deaths in the forests of central Java with barely a murmur of protest. The final wishes of executed Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan – for an end to the death penalty – will not be granted. Or not yet.
Indonesian lawmakers are remaining tight-lipped about the condemned – who they are, and how many – but there are rumoured to be up to 15 drug offenders, largely non-Western foreign nationals of retentionist countries, who could be executed as early as this week. "There is only the choosing of the specific date. That's what I haven't been able to decide," announced Attorney-General H.M. Prasetyo, as though pondering when to hold a luncheon rather than when he will usher the next desperate band of convicts onto the killing fields of Nusakambangan.
If the public pronouncements from senior figures are distasteful, though – desultory remarks about sprucing up the execution site, drilling the shooters, or preparing facilities to accommodate the bodies of the not-yet-dead – that's not exactly unique to Indonesia. The recent debate in Virginia on the merits of the lethal injection cocktail versus 1800 volts of electricity reminds us that there's no nice way to talk about state-sanctioned murder.
Authorities are resolved to avoid any "drama" this time around, as though the macabre theatre of last year – the armoured Barracuda carriers and brigades of masked security personnel – was not scripted by Indonesia itself. "There won't be a soap opera like the last time", according to Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan "because I think that wasn't pretty". No indeed.
Of course, the less said about these executions, the harder it is to scrutinise the mechanics of Indonesia's capital punishment apparatus or the narratives of those that are caught within it. Like Zulfiqar Ali, for instance, sentenced to death for possession of 300g heroin: except that Ali wasn't in possession of the drug at all, and the individual who was – and who fingered Ali as his supplier – has since retracted his testimony.
This bleak situation may not come as any surprise to legal experts or anyone else who witnessed, with dismay and disbelief, the events of 2015. Young Filipina Mary Jane Veloso came within minutes of an encounter with the firing squad before new evidence – suggesting Veloso wasn't, in fact, a drug trafficker but a trafficked person – was finally conceded. And in this, too, Indonesia is not alone.
Research from the United States reveals that, conservatively, about 4 per cent of those sentenced to death are innocent. That's around 8000 men and women in the US that have been placed, falsely, on death row since the 1970s – and only a fraction of these will ever be exonerated. The rash of forced confessions that undermines the integrity of capital sentencing in Indonesia appears to be part of an epidemic that spans the Middle East and even the United States. The death penalty, it turns out, is not the ultimate way for the community to mete out justice, but injustice.
In some respects, the tide is turning. In April, an Indonesian delegate at the United Nations general assembly special session on drugs was booed for defending the use of the death penalty for drug crime – and there's no doubt its use in this context is deeply troubling. But it's not clear why such public demonstrations of scorn are reserved for Indonesia alone, and why the conversation around capital punishment is perennially hijacked by a focus on the crime, rather than the punishment. The number of offenders allegedly on Indonesia's hit list is almost identical to the number put to death in the United States this year so far; similar to that executed by state of Texas in 2015 alone.
Whether or not the death penalty should be applied to drug crime or only reserved for more serious crimes like murder is missing the point. Worse, this type of thinking lures us into a dangerous moral calculus that leaves us at the mercy of our greatest fears and our deepest prejudice: terrorism but never murder; murder but never drugs; drugs but never apostasy. Because here's the thing – the fatal flaws in the death penalty are the same regardless of crime.
The question of who is sentenced to death and who is ultimately executed – and when – has nothing to do with judicial impartiality and, in some cases, precious little even to do with the penal code. The lottery of a system that can arbitrarily hand death to one individual and a 10-year sentence to another for the same crime is chilling, as is the unnerving correlation between politics and executions – evident from Iran, to Indonesia, to the cynical timing of Afghanistan's executions of Taliban prisoners a fortnight ago. Research on US state elections reveal an even more dismal statistic: executions are 25 percent more likely in election years than other years, and elections increase this risk by an even larger amount if the defendant is African-American. God bless America.
Capital punishment – no matter where or how it's used – targets the disadvantaged with a savage specificity. The key predictors of a death sentence in the US are not the severity of the crime but victim race and geography, and in the same way that capital punishment takes aim at blacks and Hispanics in the US, in Asia it is largely reserved for 'the poor, and the poorly connected'. Corruption may be rife in many Asian judicial systems – prompting some academics to tacitly advocate the bribery of public officials – but in the US, too, capital sentences are simply not handed to those that can afford good legal representation, according to Supreme Court justices. Indeed, the litany of incompetence, including unethical and even criminal conduct, from attorneys in capital cases is no less stunning in Dallas than it is in Denpasar.
And if that's so, what difference does it make whether a death sentence is handed to a drug smuggler in Bali or a murderer in Oklahoma? It's time we realised there's no such thing as a justice system that's infallible, and dispensed with the collective delusion that a death sentence – in Texas or Tehran or Tangerang – is reserved for those most deserving of this ultimate measure of justice. And while we're at it, it's time we abandoned the notion that capital punishment has anything to do with justice in the first place.
Sarah Gill is an Age columnist who has worked as a writer and a policy analyst. She is undertaking postgraduate legal studies at the University of Western Australia.