In one of the most challenging TOK classes (Theory of Knowledge, a subject that can be defined as “practical philosophy”, taught as part of the International Baccalaureate programme) my class was split into two groups and given one hour to prepare a debate on death penalty. Luckily I was asked to advocate against it, which may have not hit the spot in terms of “teaching to see the world from a different perspective” but which was way easier for me as I have always been a fierce opponent of the capital punishment.
To be fair, at the time, death penalty to me meant one thing: America. I knew it was enforced in other countries as well but all the information, campaigns and petiotions I had come across did come from the United States -it was waaay before facebook and twitter, I lived in Malawi and information was somewhat limited…
Today I am in Bali, it is possibly the worst day of the year to be here. Because tonight, despite all petitions, marches, appeals, nine men are going to be executed.
Two of them spent the last ten years on the island and the feelings about their executions are really mixed. In 2005 Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran led a ring of nine people, later known as the Bali Nine, who tried to smuggle 8.3 kgs of drugs from Indonesia to Australia. Indonesia has a strict drug law, you are told about the risks of smuggling drugs in and out of the country not only at the airport and on the plane but also when you buy your ticket. And besides, if you decide to take almost 9 kgs of drugs across a border you may want to consider the consequences. President Widodo has not, so far, even taken into account clemency. And the clock is ticking, if things don’t change -soon- Andrew, Myuran, Mary Jayne, Martin, Badarudin, Salami, Rodrigo, Sylvester and Okwdili may be corpses before I go to bed.
I personally think that even if mercy was granted it wouldn’t change anything. Clemency was very vocally advocated for for the two Australians, up until a few weeks ago no one had heard of the other seven and even today if you stop someone on the street and ask about Chan and Sukumaran everybody can tell you something about them, if you mention Rodrigo Guarte or Martin Anderson I’m not so sure people even know who they are.
Of course Australia is Australia and the Philippines are not Australia. Also, a few of the countries where these people are from still have death penalty and it surely doesn’t seem that cruel to carry it out here rather than back home.
Despite working in a sector where the sad stories of abused children are a daily thing -and despite forcing myself, rather often, to shake the thought of murder off my head when it comes to rapists, pedophiles and people who exploit and abuse children- I still condemn the capital punishment as I did when I was fifteen. But these weeks of waiting for something that was inevitably coming, all the articles I read, all the interviews I saw proved to me that George Orwell was right, all humans are equal, but some humans are more equal than others.
President Widodo could have in fact suspended the execution as a first step towards abolishing death penalty altogether, he didn’t. And by doing so he showed that Indonesia doesn’t believe in the role of prison for rehabilitation (both Australian prisoners have done incredible things while serving their time in Kerobokan prison) at an institutional level. This, for such a forward thinking President is a major throwback: he has lost consensus at home and his initial charm with international public opinion is fading quickly. By granting clemency first, and abolishing death penalty after, Indonesia could go back to the Gotha of those countries that matter, not only from an economic point of view.
And this is Widodo’s mistake. Our mistake, the highly engaged western societies’ mistake, was to not take action as a whole but rather protect our own people. The big and powerful Australia has marched, protested, held vigils, started media campaigns and ultimately threatened, other countries like Ghana or the Philippines have barely acknowledged the situation. But nine people on death row, no matter where they are and who they are, are a problem that concerns us all.
If things don’t change in the next three hours, and permanently, Indonesia is bound to stagnate in the eyes of an ignorant world as a new China: a country the West cannot live without, but that the same West is happy to keep at a distance. Out of fear, maybe, but also because beyond a certain point the gap in cultural differences seems impossible to merge.
By throwing in a same batch ten people with such different backgrounds (the Brazilian man, Rodrigo Gularte, is allegedly mentally disabled, the Frenchman and the Philipino woman have been caught without knowing why -the Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso was caught at the airport carrying a bag of clothes that someone had given her while promising her a job in Indonesia. Serge Areski Atlaoui is a mechanic who was caught in a raid in the factory where he was working, allegedly not knowing that the machinery factory was a cover for a meth lab) the Indonesian Government punishes the crime and not the person. By not acknowledging the differences among prisoners the Indonesian Government tries to wipe out what in other cases are ameliorating circumstances for the sake of a war on drug that not even this draconian law has helped winning so far.
The second that trigger is pulled, and it will be, Indonesia will have lost a great opportunity to show its greateness.