This Is Cruel And Inhuman Punishment


It is difficult to imagine what horrors are being endured by the family and friends of Scott Rush, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran of the famed Bali Nine. As their final appeals draw closer to exhaustion, three young lives hang in the balance. They wait in what can only be described as a form of torture, on death row in Bali’s Kerobokan jail.

They bring to mind the fate of another young Australian.

I, and many others, have not forgotten the devastating images of the mother of Van Tuong Nguyen in 2005, as she brokenly and haltingly walked towards her last living encounter with her condemned son. Despite numerous calls for clemency from Amnesty International and thousands of individual Australians, Van Nguyen was hanged in Changi Prison.

Aged just 23, Van was arrested in 2002 and convicted in 2003. He was executed in the early hours of the morning on 2 December 2005 — aged 25.

Now we are confronted particularly by the story of Scott Rush, a 19-year-old who made a foolish decision to act as a drug mule. It was his first trip overseas. His father, seeking to save his son from a greater evil and to prevent his crime, informed the Australian Federal Police. In so doing, he unwittingly was party to setting up his son and eight others for arrest in Indonesia, with its known death penalty for drug trafficking. The AFP are alleged to have reneged on a deal and, instead of preventing Scott from leaving Australia, informed the Indonesian authorities.

This added dimension to a father’s grief can barely be comprehended. But even the cruel twist in this narrative should not blind us to the deep wrong at the heart of this situation. That is, the injustice of state sanctioned executions.

I prepared a press release regarding Van Nguyen when I was working at the Australian Psychological Society in 2005. I maintained that capital punishment was violent and unethical and that research had shown it failed as a deterrent. Punishment, as opposed to appropriate treatment, had been repeatedly shown to lack efficacy. The causes and solutions for criminal activity lie in targeting the causes, stresses and enablers and, only in extreme cases, in permanent incarceration. Real solutions do not just involve individual treatment and therapy, as important as these may be, but also require attention to broader social factors. The eye-for-an-eye approach has, in effect, historically sanctioned and modelled the very behaviour that the punishment purports to condemn.

It is now five years since the hanging of Van Nguyen but the punishment of his family continues. Born in a Thai refugee camp, Van migrated to Australia with his family. We may assume that he suffered from the traumas of fleeing a war, of displacement and of living in a camp. The "motive" for his crime was to pay off his brother’s debts. Herein lies another twist of the knife in the family’s grief. One brother dies seeking to help his twin.

I can remember the countdown in July 1986 to the execution of Australians Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in Malaysia’s Pudu Prison. I did not know then that Barlow’s mother had wrestled with smuggling a suicide concoction to him for fear that he might choose to take a more merciful death before all avenues for appeal had been exhausted.

I am also old enough to remember 3 February 1967. That was the date of the execution of Ronald Ryan. Intense protests helped to ensure that he was the last person hanged in Australia.

Now we are faced with a new dilemma.

How do we respond to the imposition of the death penalty in other nations? If we cooperate with authorities in other jurisdictions in ways that bring about the death penalty beyond our shores, should we rest easy and remain proud of our own moral position? Or should we go beyond this and use our influence, where we can, to enjoin other nations to end this practice? For me, the answers to these questions are clear.

The case of Scott Rush brings this issue of national complicity into stark relief. He was in effect handed over to the judicial system of a government that imposes the death penalty. It was an offence that would have attracted a prison term in Australia. That it was Rush’s first offence would have been taken into consideration.

I do not deny that drug-trafficking may bring about enormous grief insofar as it facilitates the use of drugs. But vindictive rage, cloaked in the guise of cool judicial punishment of just one individual, does little — if anything — to stem the flow of drugs, or to save lives. Drug mules are a dime a dozen and clearly expendable to the big drivers of this "industry".

Are those who are urging the death penalty taking a tough stance on drugs to flex political muscle? Renae Lawrence’s plea for the men on death row, particularly for Scott Rush, drew attention to the apparent discrepancy between her treatment and theirs: she received a penalty of 20 years jail, in spite of an extensive criminal history.

As the announcement of an execution date for the Bali three draws near, we must urge our governments to pull out all stops to prevent this gross enactment of cruelty and injustice, founded as it is on misguided notions of prevention, example or revenge.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.