The House of the Dead

Two Australian men were convicted and sentenced to execution by firing squad more than nine years ago. They still wait.

Two Australian men were convicted and sentenced to execution by firing squad more than nine years ago. They still wait. It is said that they are in reasonable spirits. It is hard to believe. The most inhumane punishment is not death but a prolonged wait for its inevitable arrival. Polls suggest that Australian attitudes to Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan have shifted significantly in recent weeks. A snap Morgan Poll conducted in late January showed that a slim majority of Australians still supported the death penalty for Australians convicted of smuggling drugs into another country but a more recent poll, conducted by the Lowy Institute in mid-February, showed that 62 percent of adult Australians did not believe that the execution of Chan and Sukumaran should go ahead. Prime Minister Abbott captured the mood of the nation when he said “Australians are feeling sick in the guts at the prospect of execution for these two”. Sympathies have been aroused by scenes in which the tormented convicts were crowded by military personnel, a stalking media pack looking for the latest scoop on misery and curious onlookers. In The Idiot, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myashkin describes an execution he had witnessed in France. The act itself was over in an instant, “but all the preparations are so dreadful. When they announce the sentence, and prepare the criminal and tie his hands, and cart him off… that’s the fearful part of the business. The people all crowd around…”  It was Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most autobiographical work. In 1849, Dostoyevsky was condemned to death for revolutionary activities, and on December 23 of the same year, stood before a firing squad in Semyonov Place, St Petersburg. The nine men due to be executed that day were split into three groups of three. Dostoyevsky was in the second group and as he stood before his executioners, a letter from Tsar Nicholas I arrived in a cart, commuting the sentence. Dostoyevsky was instead sent to do hard labour in Siberia, from where he wrote The House of the Dead. The circumstances in which Chan and Sukumaran will endure their last days, weeks or months is cruel. It also recalls the sentiments expressed by Dostoyevsky through the fictional Prince Myshkin: “The most terrible part of the whole punishment is not the bodily pain at all – but the certain knowledge that in an hour – then 10 minutes, then in half-a-minute, then now, in this very instant – your soul must quit your body and you will no longer be a man…”Dostoyevsky was pulled back from the brink, so was able to describe, though a fictional medium, the moments that will almost certainly come to these young Australians: “Imagine,” Dostoyevsky demanded his readers, “what must be going on in a man’s mind at that moment; what dreadful convulsions his whole spirit must have endured; it is an outrage to the soul that’s what it is.” An outrage to the soul is exactly what it is. To be sure, the Indonesians and Australians should also be outraged at those people who partake in the production, trafficking and sale of illicit drugs. Drugs like heroin and particularly ice in Australia are destroying lives. Yet little mention has been made of a serious and sustained policy to defeat this enemy common to both peoples. We are unaware of any imminent announcement on joint action to tackle illicit drugs. Is it because such actions would perhaps lack the political impact that emotionally charges issues like national sovereignty or capital punishment? Taking a position on capital punishment has defined many political leaders throughout history. It is no small matter to choose, or chose not, to take the life of another human being into their hands – and to remove or maintain the right of future leaders to take this step. Dostoyevsky was not the only subject of Tsar Nicholas I to have been pulled back from the brink. The Tsar’s extreme cruelty and malicious nature was demonstrated though his habit of frequently condemning prisoners to death before giving a last-minute reprieve, as he did to Dostoyevsky. What the soul is forced to endure in the face of imminent extermination is the most inhumane of punishment. It is unlikely that President Joko Widodo will emulate the Tsar and commute the sentence. It is even less likely that President Widodo will have the courage to abolish capital punishment, which has strong public support in Indonesia. Abolishing capital punishment has historically required a large dose of political courage. When Francois Mitterrand was working to lead the Left to victory in the 1981 presidential elections in France, almost two-thirds of French voters opposed the abolition of the death penalty. Mitterrand’s commitment to the abolition of capital punishment was proof of a hitherto doubting electorate that he was a man of courage and conviction. Mitterrand won the election, and a subsequently a second term as President of the Fifth Republic. The level of support in pre-Mitterrand France for the death penalty is similar to the percentage of Indonesians who are said to support the execution of convicted drug criminals, according to one media poll taken last week. What will the next few days, then hours, then minutes, tell the world about President Widodo? News Limited commentator Greg Sheridan wrote in the Weekend Australian that the President “already looks like a weak president and his willingness to execute people looks like craven populism”. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin describes how a grown man condemned to death cried at the scaffold. The grown man was surely a fictional echo of a younger Dostoyevsky, who must have felt the “dreadful convulsions” of an imminent execution of which he was ultimately spared. Life can be taken in an instant but these weeks that Sukumaran and Chan have been forced to endure are “an outrage to the soul”

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