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Justice and the fate of the 'Bali Nine'

By Stuart Rees - posted Thursday, 12 May 2005

In the events preceding and following the arrest of the Bali Nine, Australian politicians and police could have played far more constructive roles. Politicians have moralised. Police have been preoccupied with their friendship with Indonesian authorities. Consideration of Indonesian lawyers’ conduct runs into a sticky spider's web of cultural sensitivity and respect for state sovereignty.

In making statements about the interrogation of the Australians as though he is above the fray, the Minister for Justice, Chris Ellison, forgets his responsibility to interpret what justice is supposed to mean. Opposition leader, Kim Beazley, supports the actions of the Federal police and sounds as though he always wants to be on the side of officialdom and is reluctant to consider the plight of these Australians.

The Federal police are keen to show they are co-operating closely with Indonesian colleagues but their conduct has been judged by civil libertarians as lacking in thought for the fate of the alleged drug couriers. In response to such criticism, Federal Police Chief, Mick Kelty, rounds on armchair critics who, he implies, do not know what they are talking about.


Yet if politicians are mesmerised by their need to be seen to be supporting police, only public comment can hold police to account. Commissioner Kelty may be a worthy chief, yet he would acknowledge that police corruption throughout Australia has included making profits from the drug trade. Literature on this trade suggests that from time to time, in order to deflect attention from their failure to capture Mr Big, police may sacrifice a few drug mules who can then be “scapegoated” as key cogs in a sinister wheel.

In my experience of advising courts and supervising convicted offenders, an appraisal of the costs of making charges and imposing severe penalties always needed to be balanced by consideration of the benefits of non intervention, of giving people a second chance, using discretion to teach the vulnerable and foolish a lesson so they might reconsider what they could do with their lives.

Could the Federal Police have warned some of the Bali nine, stopped them engaging in an illegal trade or at least waited until they returned to Australia before arresting them? They might have detected who picked up the drugs destined for Sydney, avoided the prospect of nine people facing a firing squad and gained a knowledge of drug distribution networks.

Politicians should resist the temptation to always appear powerful, in the right, sending signals to all and sundry, needing to teach people a lesson by letting punishment and the full weight of the law in any country take its course. This latter stance reflects punitive traditions which may help to seal the fate of young Australians but will not contribute to the values of tolerance and public education. Politicians too easily forget their responsibility to explain the way in which sentences imposed on offenders do not have to continue the brutalising traditions of punishment. Such politicians also need to question why Australian police should co-operate with any justice systems which retain the death penalty.

Public criticism of police should not be made lightly but claims about the sovereignty of a State make challenges to others’ systems of justice even more difficult. There are several International Commission and UN reports which emphasise a responsibility to protect which transcends national boundaries. In this respect, if a prosecutor in an Indonesian court says that a young woman’s guilt is demonstrated by her pleading not guilty or by her appearing to sully the image of a clean living tourist haven, then critics are entitled to say “you must be joking”, or, more constructively, “what is justice supposed to mean?”

Instead of being able to make these comments we are too often expected to stay silent for fear of appearing culturally insensitive. Justice demands that we do not keep quiet, that we articulate what due process and just outcomes might mean, anywhere, anywhen.

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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