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Indonesia: The journey from death row

Nusakam Bangan prison island, Indonesia
Nusakam Bangan prison island, Indonesia
Waves of executions are part of Indonesian President Joko Widodo's hard line on drug convicts. Australians best remember those of Bali Nine leaders Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, shot by firing squad in 2015 despite all efforts to save them. With more than 200 people on death row, why do anti-death penalty activists now see a ray of hope?

IN A SMALL Christian prayer room at Cilacap jail, on central Java’s south coast, a death-row prisoner talks diffidently about her wedding dress.

The Indonesian migrant worker and convicted drug dealer was once married to an abusive husband but separated long ago after he shunted her off to work in Taiwan.

Merri Utami had planned to wear her new white dress, not to second nuptials, but to her execution by firing squad last year.

She had been preparing to meet Jesus.

According to Indonesian protocol, she would be tied to a stake in a remote jungle clearing on Nusakambangan penal island off the port town of Cilacap, blindfolded and shot dead in the early hours under darkness.

Sentenced to death in 2003 for carrying 1.1 kilograms of heroin through Jakarta’s Soekarno Hatta airport, the grandmother of two claimed she was duped into becoming a drug mule.

Utami, 48, would be the only female in Indonesia’s third round of executions following a four-year moratorium on capital punishment.

Fate had a different plan. Or, as Utami says, at the 11th hour, divine intervention saved her skin.

From Cilacap Harbour, the maximum security, seven-prison complex housing drug convicts, terrorists, murderers and graft inmates on the island’s east is mostly obscured by thick jungle drenched in dark foreboding – the spectre of twin shooting fields constant companions.

An execution clearing can be glimpsed by boat about 1km from the port entry. Further right, the sealed white Batu prison, where four inmates from the last round were incarcerated, gleams in the blinding sun.

From her cell across the strait, Utami feels the chill wind of Nusakambangan where she was briefly held. A big woman, she is meticulously groomed, her hair tied back with a pretty ribbon. Wearing crimson lipstick, she smiles often, perhaps nervously, revealing perfect white teeth.

She recalls Batu prison officials forbidding her from wearing the wedding dress. A white tunic, on which the prison doctor - albeit bound by the Hippocratic oath - placed a black mark over her heart for the target, was obligatory attire. Not until after her execution, when she lay in her coffin, would she be allowed to wear her dress.

Nor was Utami’s 24-year-old daughter permitted to apply make-up to her mother’s face or do her hair nicely.

“I wanted to look beautiful when my daughter saw me in the coffin,” confides Utami. Ever resourceful, she applied makeup herself using a sliver of reflective glass.

One of 14 drug convicts facing execution on July 29 last year, Utami endured excruciating hours praying in her isolation cell with her Catholic priest, to be told at 6am she was one of 10 spared. That was despite an official announcement following four executions about 2am. All 10 remain on death row – eight on Nusakambangan and one in Jakarta.

“I was shivering. I prayed for a miracle. I asked Jesus to show me a sign,” says Utami, a Christian convert.

“I say to Jesus, ‘if I go home… bring me to heaven with you, but if you give me another chance I will live better’. I say, ‘please God, give me mercy’.”

After midnight, she heard shackled drug convicts shuffling past her cell. She couldn’t hear crying or protests but it was the final exit of one Indonesian and three Nigerians.

“I was sweating, I was very nervous, waiting for them to get me,” says Utami.

A third wave was swiftly, methodically erased to try to bypass the international uproar and diplomatic reverberations that marked the 2015 executions. It was, according to the government, another nail in the coffin of the nation’s drug scourge.

The reason for the reprieves was unclear. Attorney-General Muhammad Prasetyo spoke of ongoing judicial procedures but some prisoners went to their deaths mid-appeal in contravention of the law.

On the night, so violent were the lightning and thunderstorms lashing Nusakambangan as the four faced the firing squad that the electricity box exploded.

And that, according to Cilacap’s Irish Catholic priest and spiritual counsellor to death-row inmates, Father Charlie Burrows, was why the shootings stopped.

“They had to do it in the dark with flashlights. It was chaos,” he says, shuddering.

Utami is less prosaic. As far as she is concerned, Jesus saved her. The thunder was unequivocally the signal.

Her circumstances are similar to those of migrant worker and human trafficking victim Filipina mother Mary Jane Veloso, an alleged heroin smuggler who was spared - perhaps temporarily - at the last minute in 2015 when her recruiter surrendered to police.

The 2016 executions were the first since reformed Bali Nine leaders Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan faced the firing squad with five other foreigners and one Indonesian in 2015. The Australians were sentenced to death for attempting to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin from Bali to Australia in 2005.

Death-row cells on Nusakam Bangan penal island
Death-row cells on Nusakam Bangan penal island
Mutterings of more executions have reignited ominous speculation. In February, Attorney-General Muhammad Prasetyo asserted he wanted to expedite a fourth wave of 25 death row drug convicts this year but would first consider their legal rights.

In May, local news outlet Tempo quoted Prasetyo saying he had a list of names.

“The names are there, but instead we see whether all the rights have been given or not,” he said.

Prasetyo did not answer phone calls and the Deputy Attorney-General Noor Rachmad declined to reply to written questions.

Many factor in the current Islamic hardline climate which saw the Christian, ethnic-Chinese governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, jailed in May for blasphemy amid a surge of intolerance, religious conservatism and a yen to return to Suharto-era economic stability.

A moratorium on the death penalty would be incompatible and unlikely in the Muslim-majority country, says Charles Honoris, a member of Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

“A moratorium would be seen as a sign of weakness by the president. If Jokowi is elected for a second term in 2019, it could be implemented.”

Malaysia’s announcement last week to abolish the mandatory death penalty for drug crimes, doubtless saving the life of alleged Australian trafficker Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto, has heartened human rights activists.

But during last year’s round, public sentiment specified drugs as haram – forbidden by Islamic law – advocating executions for drug dealers, says Rahimah Abdulrahim executive director of the democracy-promoting Habibie Center, founded by former president BJ Habibie.

Her concern over the prospect of a weakened nascent democracy comes as Widodo bans groups opposing Pancasila, the embodying national ideology promoting pluralism and tolerance, in a move targeting Islamic extremists.

“Utilising the hardliners is the flavour of the year for whatever ends they want. I would not be surprised if they (politicians) used the hardliners this time to convince the public executions are the way to go.

“I think they might keep this one a lot quieter; they might not announce it for fear of activists screaming again.

“It has to be beyond a reasonable doubt that that the person is guilty,” says Abdulrahim. “You cannot in all reason and logic say our rule of law prevails. Do we have enough confidence in the process that we can without any doubt know if that person is getting a fair trial?”

Indonesia’s bid to secure a seat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council next year has served as a restraint, but for those facing the firing squad uncertainty reigns. Convicted British cocaine smuggler Lindsay Sandiford is one suspecting she’s living on borrowed time after receiving the death sentence in 2013.

Widodo’s December 2014 edict – and his rejection of clemency to 64 drug convicts while claiming a drug emergency – that there would be no compromise for condemned drug traffickers remains a deadly portent.

According to Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, that was the turning point. “It is very difficult to make a U-turn.”

Eighteen executions for drug crimes have been racked up in two and a half years compared with 27 between 1999 and 2014.

President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and President Joko Widodo
President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and President Joko Widodo
In a further hardening, Widodo on July 21 declared an “extreme narcotics emergency situation” and instructed police to shoot alleged drug traffickers, especially foreigners. Three foreigners and one Indonesian, purportedly resisting arrest, were shot dead last month.

“If they resist arrest, just gun them down, show no mercy,” Widodo said, drawing comparisons with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloody drug war has left over 7000 drug suspects dead amid extrajudicial killings.

Analysis released last week by a senior lecturer from the Asia Institute at Melbourne University, Dave McRae, shows 57 drug suspects have been shot dead in Indonesia in the first seven months of this year.

While McRae cites just 14 deaths last year, Imparsial, the Indonesian Human Rights Monitor, told SBS police had killed many more – up to 40 drug suspects reportedly resisting arrest, noting an increase since Duterte came to power.

Duterte has also cemented record-high approval ratings and is seeking to impose capital punishment for drug crimes.

The comparisons are unsurprising, says Ricky Gunawan, director of the Community Legal Aid Institute. “Both are populist leaders tough on drugs, so it’s no surprise if they are copying each other.”

In Indonesia, fatal shootings provide a “middle way”. Widodo could still exploit the drugs issue while avoiding international opprobrium on executions, Gunawan says.

“They still treat drugs as a populist issue, not just to maintain popularity but also to show that Jokowi can maintain law and order. The shootings are a middle way … while Jokowi is less likely to receive international pressure because the numbers are much lower if compared to Duterte, and they have not been widely reported.”

But coverage and fears of uncontrolled, summary shootings have increased. Imparsial spokeswoman Evitarossi Budiawan is concerned police, in the permissive climate, will go beyond its remit and violate regulations, such as failing to give suspects fair warning.

“Jokowi’s statement is very dangerous because it justifies site shootings. It is intended to deter drug suspects while seeming to cast aside the presumption of innocence. Indonesia is a state of law. Suspects have the right to due process.”

A ray of hope has emerged in Indonesia’s new draft criminal code. Offering the prospect for reduced life and death sentences, it is before the parliament. If approved, a new legal framework would facilitate well-behaved prisoners showing rehabilitation and repentance to be granted a 10-year probationary period after 10 years in jail, with no execution. A life sentence or 20 years would be considered in the revision, regarded by rights advocates as the “Bali Nine legacy”, in deference to Sukumaran and Chan’s transformation.

There is cautious optimism.”It’s not abolition but it’s progress,” says Haris Azhar, former coordinator of KontraS, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence. The current appetite for executions is small, he thinks, but reform is incremental and there are vested political interests.

“They (the government) can push the button and start again. I cannot smell anything that they will stop, legally or by moratorium, (it is) just idle. The death penalty is a useful political weapon. It’s a way to increase government popularity.”

➤ Click here to read the full article

Source: sbs.com.au, Deborah Cassrels, August 15, 2017

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