Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Quality of Mercy

“Though justice be thy plea, consider this, 
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation”
William Shakespeare – The Merchant of Venice

On his 24th birthday in 2005, Australian citizen, Myuran Sukumaran was arrested by Indonesian police in a hotel on the island of Bali. In the room at the time of his arrest was a suit case containing 334 g (11.8 oz) of heroin, part of a 8.3kg consignment destined for Australia. Along with eight others arrested on that day and dubbed the Bali 9, Sukumaran and fellow Australian, Andrew Chan were considered the ring leaders.

In February the following year Sukumaran was found guilty of drug trafficking by an Indonesian court and sentenced to death by firing squad. In 2011 Sukumaran’s death sentence was confirmed by the Indonesian Supreme Court after an appeal against the severity of his sentence was rejected by the Bali High Court. He subsequently lodged a request clemency with the then Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

During his eight years on death row at the Kerobokan Prison, Sukumaran has been described by prison officials as a model prisoner. Apart from admitting his guilt and expressing remorse, Sukumaran has taught English, computer, graphic design and philosophy classes to his fellow inmates and was instrumental in setting up a computer and art room. In 2010 Sukumaran started a fine arts degree by correspondence with Western Australia’s Curtin University.

Proceeds from an exhibition of Sukumaran’s work held in the Victorian capital city of Melbourne along with the income generated by a T-shirt printing factory he set up inside the jail have made the programs financially self sufficient. "I'm using my organizational skills for good instead of evil," Sukumaran has said.

Sukumaran's Australian supporters convinced Australian artist Ben Quilty to coach Sukumaran in his artistic quest. For three years Quilty has been visiting Sukumaran, about whom he says “He’s my friend. He’s a profoundly powerful person. No matter what happens, this shows the power of art, which I didn’t get until I spent time with this man on death row in Kerobokan prison.”

For the last two years Quilty has also been entering Sukumaran’s self portraits in the Archibald Prize. In spite of any artistic merit, Sukumaran’s paintings will never be hung; he doesn't meet the Prize’s residency requirements. A fact, as a previous winner of the Archibald, Quilty should be well aware of. But as a publicity stunt it was worked exceedingly well. News sources around the world have picked up on the story of the Indonesian prisoner entering his art in Australia’s most prestigious art award and consequently back grounded Sukumaran’s efforts at rehabilitation.

Unfortunately for Sukumaran this has cut no ice and perhaps even to spite these efforts the new Indonesian President Joko Widodo has rejected Sukumaran’s plea for clemency. “There is insufficient reason to give clemency to those convicted,” said the presidential decree signed by Widodo on the 30th of December last year. And according to the Australian newspaper, Widodo has announced “there will be no clemency at all for drug traffickers.

It is an interesting message Widodo is sending to the Indonesian people. To quote Shakespeare again “The quality of mercy is not strain’d … it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” Or in the more prosaic words of Myuran Sukumaran upon hearing about his fate, "I've been walking around feeling like someone's punched me in the stomach. Is there no such thing as rehabilitation? Can't someone change? What use will executing us be?"

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