I’ve resisted until now the temptation to blog about the death penalty, because it’s dancing to John Howard’s tune. But I keep thinking about it, so I suppose I’ll just have to write it out of my system. Others have already beaten me to the punch here, here and here (update – and here), and each has worthwhile observations.
There are numerous subsidiary reasons to oppose the death penalty. Its very existence somehow brutalises a society, and killing people hardly seems a good way to teach citizens that killing is wrong. But the main reason is that mistaken convictions are just too frequent for comfort. Unlike life imprisonment, the death penalty once carried out is irrevocable. The Lindy Chamberlain case remains etched in the psyches of long-standing Territorians (mind you quite a few still harbour convoluted conspiracy theories suggesting her guilt despite all evidence to the contrary).
Another Territory-related example of wrongful murder conviction is the case of psychotic multiple thrill killer Andy Albury. A Queensland man was wrongly convicted (on perjured police confessional evidence) of a murder in Mount Isa that Albury later truthfully confessed to committing. The wrongly convicted man spent several years in prison. In about 1990 I was instructed by the man’s Queensland lawyers to obtain a detailed sworn statement from Albury to bolster the case for a pardon or retrial. I spent 3 hours at Berrimah Prison interviewing Albury, who was closely guarded throughout by two very senior detectives.
Albury recounted all the murders he had committed, including the Mount Isa one, in nauseating detail and with evident relish. At one stage he asked me to hold out my arm so he could demonstrate a particular aspect he was explaining. I would have done it too, but one of the detectives leapt between us and held me back. If I’d done as Albury asked, the detective explained, he would have grabbed my arm and snapped it like a twig. It had happened before; it was Albury’s favourite party trick. “Nearly gotcha”, Albury giggled, and began laughing wildly. It was like being in a cell with Hannibal Lechter’s half-witted brother.
But there may be different factors at play in Indonesia. In any country, the incapacitating effect of the death penalty is complete. The recidivism rate for executed murderers is zero. In an advanced western country like Australia, long-term imprisonment (which is the only realistic alternative) is also highly effective in an incapacitating sense. The same isn’t true in Indonesia. For a start, widespread corruption at all levels makes it quite likely that a well-connected terrorist (and Al Qaeda isn’t short of Saudi Arabian money) may eventually be able to engineer an escape. Just look at the recent escape of Jemaah Islamiyah bomb-maker Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi from prison in the Philippines.
There’s also a significant risk that the ongoing imprisonment of prominent Islamic terrorists in Indonesia might provoke a major hostage crisis designed to secure their release.
Lastly, the fear that Indonesia could either become a fundamentalist Islamic state or be destabilised and blown apart into dozens of weak failed states is a very real one. It was graphically underscored for the Indonesian ruling class by the events in East Timor in 1999, and Aceh is also an ongoing reminder. Tensions created by the long-term imprisonment of terrorists viewed as heroes by a significant minority of the population may contribute to social instability to a far greater extent than any short-term martyr effect flowing from execution.
All these factors make the Indonesian perspective on the death penalty look very different than the view from Australia. It’s entirely logically possible to maintain strong opposition to the death penalty in Australia (as I do), while accepting that it might remain appropriate in Indonesia for perfectly proper utilitarian reasons. At the very least it’s the Indonesians’ business not ours.