Across the world, people have expressed outrage with the recent executions in Indonesia. The European Union, the United Nations, and various national governments have all issued statements condemning the state killings.
While we can criticise the Indonesian authorities, we should also use this time to look at ourselves. For far too long, we have been wittingly or unwittingly complicit in the imposition of the death penalty elsewhere – and, as long as we help states impose death sentences, we have little moral authority with which to condemn the likes of Indonesia.
The Australian government has recalled its ambassador, following the lead of the Brazilian and Dutch governments which took similar measures when their nationals were executed earlier this year. The French government has warned of “consequences” should the planned execution of Serge Atlaoui go ahead, and the UK has also expressed its “concerns” with the executions, particularly since there are a number of British nationals facing the firing squad (though the strength of the UK’s statement leaves a lot to be desired).
The British government, however, is not exactly immune from criticism when it comes to the death penalty, especially when it is imposed on drug offenders. Investigations by Reprieve have highlighted how money and assistance from the UK, other European governments, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have helped the likes of Pakistan and Iran impose death sentences on drug offenders.
Holding the executioner’s coat
By providing specialist training and equipment to anti-narcotics agencies, the UK and others have actually aided executions by enabling the likes of Iran and Pakistan to track down, prosecute, and hang suspected drug traffickers. In its 2014 report, European Aid for Executions, Reprieve lays bare the correlation between funding for counter-narcotics programmes, and increases in the numbers of death sentences and executions in these two countries.
While the UK, Denmark and Ireland have ceased funding for counter-narcotics programmes in Iran because of concerns about capital punishment, they have not applied the same reasoning to Pakistan. It’s worth noting that on the same day that Indonesia executed eight men, Amnesty International issued a press release detailing how Pakistan had just carried out its 100th execution since December 2014. While not all of these executions were for drug-related crimes, it’s questionable whether we should be funding a justice system that puts so many people to death.
In the case of the Bali Nine in Indonesia, it has already been pointed out that Australia could have prevented death sentences from ever being handed down to Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumuran. It was the Australian Federal Police that provided information to Indonesian authorities about the Bali Nine, enabling their arrest and conviction. The Australian police tipped off the Indonesian authorities despite knowing that this intelligence-sharing might result in death sentences.
Likewise, the British government has helped other countries track down offenders, who have then been sentenced to death. In 2013, Ali Babitu Kololo was sentenced to death by a Kenyan court for his role in the murder of British national David Tebbutt and the kidnapping of his wife, Judith Tebbutt.
British police were heavily involved in the investigation into these crimes, providing forensic expertise and assistance with preparing the prosecution’s case. When sentencing Ali to death, the judge thanked the British police for their assistance, and for helping secure the outcome of the case.
While British police should of course help bring the killers and kidnappers of British nationals to justice (though there is evidence to suggest that Ali is actually innocent), it is starkly hypocritical of us to promote the abolition of the death penalty worldwide while simultaneously helping countries to impose capital punishment.
In early April, the foreign secretary, Phillip Hammond, refused to ask Ethiopian authorities to release Andy Tsege, a British national who was illegally kidnapped and sentenced to death in absentia in Ethiopia, simply for speaking out against human rights abuses there.
This is similar to the government’s refusal to fund legal appeals for Lindsay Sandiford, who is languishing on death row in Indonesia. It is hardly rocket science to know that a well-funded defence team would stand a greater chance of saving Sandiford’s life. Failing to properly assist our own nationals who are facing the death penalty abroad is akin to standing by and watching a person burn: we might not be legally culpable for their eventual death, but we surely have a moral and humanitarian obligation to do all we can to help.
We might not be as morally culpable in all this as the Indonesian government, but we can only condemn Indonesia when we have our own house in order. We can do this by refraining from enabling the use of capital punishment elsewhere, and by making greater efforts to save those on death row.