It was intolerable.
With no media or independent source able to bear witness on Nusa Kambangan, the island where the killing was to take place, rumours of transfers, reprieves, and the movements of prisoners trickled back from Indonesia to Australia, as Tuesday night passed into Wednesday morning.
The execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, two Australians convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to death by firing squad, was set for midnight Jakarta time.
In Australia and in Cilacap – the port across the water from Nusa Kambangan – there was nothing for people to do but wait as the night got later, and the tension tighter.
It was in Cilacap that mourners gathered in anticipation, joined by curious locals and a swarm of reporters and security forces.
Earlier in the day, caskets had been flaunted before the voracious media pack. Just before midnight, the sounds of Hallelujah and Saving Grace rang out, as they had at a Sydney vigil hours before.
— Jewel Topsfield (@JewelTopsfield) April 28, 2015
The families of the condemned waited in their hotels.
Then, at 12:25 local time, the nauseating wait came to its conclusion.
Indonesian media confirmed Chan and Sukumaran had been shot dead, along with six other convicts. Among them; a Brazilian man who suffers schizophrenia, an Indonesian, and four Nigerians.
There was a final twist. Filipino woman Mary Jane Veloso – whose case has gained some sympathy in Indonesia – was granted a stay of execution at the final moment. From an impoverished background, Veloso had also been waiting for death, joined in Indonesia by her two young sons.
While her life has been spared for now, the families of Chan and Sukumaran will soon be repatriating the bodies of their sons, brothers, and uncles.
Chan and Sukumaran were aged 21 and 24 when they were arrested in Bali just over a decade ago. In February 2006, the pair were convicted over their roles in an attempt to smuggle eight kilograms of heroin out of Indonesia.
After years of legal maneuvering and challenges, their families made a final plea for clemency yesterday afternoon.
It’s almost impossible to watch the video. Hope was all but absent. They were desperate.
Sukumaran’s sister Brintha clung to her other brother Chinthu, whose voice cracked slightly as he spoke.
“I ask the President, please show mercy. Please don’t let my mum and my sister have to bury my brother. Please, I ask the Indonesian people to show mercy…”
Before Chinthu could finish he was interrupted by Brintha, who raised her face from where it had been buried in her brother’s shoulders and wept. She flung her fist into her brother as she spoke, striking out in anger and sadness.
“Please don’t do this to my brother,” she begged. “Please Mr President Joko Widodo, please. Please don’t take my brother from me.”
The awful scene failed to make an impact on the man with the power to save the two Australians. Tuesday was the last day Brintha would see Myuran alive.
There are many stories that will be written about the deaths of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.
One is the story of a failed justice system.
Just days before their execution news continued to break about the flaws in their sentencing, including growing evidence of a conflict of interests that reaches right up to the nation’s Attorney-General.
There is already a mountain of evidence that a fair process would not have resulted in the death penalty being handed down.
Aside from the obvious concerns about the Indonesian system, it’s also a story that provokes difficult questions closer to home, particularly about the role of the Australian Federal Police. That’s something we’ll be looking at in greater depth at New Matilda later today.
But as the world waited last night, it was the personal stories of tragic redemption that were playing on the minds of those hoping and praying for the miracle that didn’t come.
In his decade in prison Sukumaran had become a skilled artist, taking instruction from decorated Australian painter Ben Quilty and emulating his distinctive style.
One of Sukumaran’s final works was presented by his lawyer shortly before the execution – a heart, on a plain white canvass.
While Sukumaran found art, Chan found God, vowing to become a pastor. He also found love, and married fiancée Febyanti Herewila the day before his death.
The men were described as model prisoners. Having originally denied wrongdoing, they confessed and asked forgiveness. They aided other prisoners in their own efforts at rehabilitation. They expressed genuine remorse.
As has been noted elsewhere, it’s not this moral transformation that makes the lives of Sukumaran and Chan worth saving.
Their lives, like all others, possess an intrinsic value. Had they been unrepentant, selfish, and foolhardy to the end, they still would not have deserved to be executed by the state.
But there is something particularly galling about the fact the crimes were committed so long ago, and that such profound metamorphoses appear to have taken place since then.
The young perpetrators were different men to those whose hearts were pierced by bullets on Nusa Kambangan last night.
As confirmation of the killings reached the ABC studios, Mark Davis – one of the country’s most respected journalists who knew the men well – was asked for his reaction.
He was quiet for a moment.
“What can I say, it’s a disgrace,” he said.
“A couple of very fine men have died tonight.”
As Davis acknowledged, the two men were well aware of the enormous reaction their impending execution provoked in Australia. They drew hope from the fact their deaths may not be in vain, that they may prevent others from suffering the same injustice and that the waste of life, talent, and love might not be visited upon another family.
The truly heroic efforts of those behind the mercy campaign were not able to save Sukumaran and Chan.
But they may yet help save the lives of many others, a legacy that will be tied in no small way to the two Sydney boys.
As the mist clears over Martin Place this morning, where the final actions of the Mercy campaign took place, despair will have replaced hope.
With that in mind, it seems fitting to quote Ben Quilty’s message to Joko Widodo, shared by thousands of people last night, as the hour grew late.
“Joko Widodo tonight you will kill two good men, my friends. I want you to know that you may take their freedom and their lives, you may rob their fellow inmates of the support and love that both men have offered and provided for so long, you can turn off Myu’s imagination but you will never kill the memory of them.”
“I have promised Myu and Andrew, their parents and their siblings, that I will fight against the death penalty for the rest of my life.”
“I can also assure you that Myu and Andrew will care for the other inmates you will execute tonight. The six men and one young woman from the Philippines, Ghana, Brazil and Nigeria will have two constant, calming and compassionate voices beside them right until the last second.
“Myuran will continue to translate your executioner’s words into English for Mary Jane Veloso and Andrew will calm and console. I know that before the sound of your guns the island will hear the comforting whisper of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.”
To those who lost their lives on Nusa Kambangan last night, may you rest in peace, and know that Ben Quilty won’t be fighting alone.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.