What exactly is the Indonesian government trying to communicate with this death penalty circus?

This is a really creepy story, and not just because Indonesia is preparing to carry out a mass execution of drug dealers at the behest of its grandstanding newly elected president.

First, some background. By far the two highest-profile prisoners in the group are Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the nominal ringleaders of the Bali Nine heroin smuggling ring. I refer to them the nominal ringleaders because they have refused to name who they were working for in Australia, citing fear for the safety of their relatives, and Australian police are said to have monitored but not arrested a man they suspect to be the true ringleader of their smuggling operation. This means that the Indonesian authorities will not in fact cut off the head of the snake by shooting Chan and Sukumaran.

For a decade, these two men were incarcerated at Kerobokan Prison on Bali. For the vast majority of this time they have been on death row. Surprisingly for a regime that puts nonviolent drug runners to death, Kerobokan Prison has a disciplinary regime that would be unthinkably liberal and laid back. The “Super Maximum Security” tier (so labeled in English, not Bahasa Indonesia) where Chan and Sukumaran were incarcerated is left open to the general yard, its inmates often free to come and go as they please during the prison’s liberal yard hours. A mixed-sex prison, Kerobokan generally allows extended full-contact visits and socialization between male and female inmates, both with minimal supervision. One of Chan and Sukumaran’s junior mules, Martin Stephens, was married on the prison grounds, in a procession that passed in front of the Super Maximum Security tower cell where Chan and Sukumaran were housed. The guests included Chan, Chan’s girlfriend, a third member of the Bali Nine and his parents, and the prison warden, who granted the newlyweds special dispensation for an overnight conjugal visit. Stephens was and still is serving a life sentence.

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Lifer and his bride in the foreground; supermax in the background.

Let’s look at some more pictures while we’re at it. The creepiness about the impending executions is hard to understand without being seen. First, examples of the privileges that Chan and Sukumuran enjoyed on death row at Kerobokan:

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Here’s one from shortly after a prison riot:

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Kerobokan is a run-down, overcrowded prison, but as prisons go, it’s fairly humane. Remember, these guys were under death sentence. They were being allowed, even encouraged by prison staff, to interact with general-population inmates.

So what the fuck was up with their transfer to Nusakambangan for execution? Seriously:

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This is the sort of protocol that the Bureau of Prisons uses to transport convicted bombers.

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It isn’t entirely clear whether this chopper greeting the transport flight was a red herring or yet another ostentatious support vehicle. Because, if you were paying attention to the other hot rides above:

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Ferry, cross the Mersey….

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If this hideous spectacle was meant to secure two nonviolent condemned men who had been model prisoners for transport to a higher security facility for execution, I’m the love child of Suharto and a Papua New Guinean headhunter’s daughter. The transport plane was escorted by not just one but four fighter jets, which appeared to be armed with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. After the transport landed, the fighters did a victory flyover of Cilacap. Many hundreds of police officers and soldiers, likely in the low thousands, were involved in ground security along the transfer route. The zone was about as flooded with security forces as a zone can be. The similarities to Ferguson

The Indonesian authorities have been exceptionally coquettish about whether they wanted to minimize press coverage of the transfer or maximize it. Chan and Sukumaran were transfered to the transport plane through the VIP terminal at Ngurah Rai Airport, normally reserved for heads of state, to shield them from news cameras. In Cilacap, they locked down the Tunggul Wulung Airport and its permiter for the same reason. Even so, the transport plane was filmed on short final approach from a close distance and the pictures of Chan and Sukumaran in transit emerged over the course of the day. The last of them probably hasn’t been published yet. This may be the result of corruption or whistleblowing, probably the former, with security personnel taking advantage of the freak show to whore themselves out as paparazzi for a day. Then again, some of these pictures can only possibly have come from one of thirty or even five or ten people. One of them shows the condemned men meeting with prison officials at Kerobokan minutes before being loaded into the armored personnel carrier:

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If this photo was taken surreptitiously, the suspect pool must be pretty fucking small.

These creeps are trying to send a message. The questions are what message they’re trying to send and to whom. The officials themselves may not fully understand what exactly they’re trying to accomplish, aside from achieving that heartwarmingly grandiose feeling. There are two obvious audiences for this horror show: the Australian public and the Indonesian public. The president, Joko Widodo, clearly wants to grandstand by taking a hard line on drug traffickers, a take-no-prisoners stance, so to speak. This is obviously for domestic and international (especially Australian) consumption. But the rest of the spectacle? This is where it gets confusing, maybe even incomprehensible. It isn’t a lynch mob; it’s a paramilitary demonstration, and a rather disciplined one. The disgusting jollity of public executions in Renaissance Great Britain isn’t really a precedent. It’s closer to the kind of scene that would make sense in an overt dictatorship, especially a communist regime or a Third-World military junta. Indonesia today is a representative democracy, and the pageantry of the prisoner transfer seems to have been directed by the president and appointed justice officials, not elements of the deep state. This doesn’t seem to be a case of the security services flexing in an attempt to intimidate the government, although that could be part of it.

The orchestrators of this nightmare are probably trying to scare the hell out of people, but whom? It will scare off small fry in the drug business, but not so much those who have juice with police and military officials, some of them personally working in the security services. It will scare off and alienate Australian tourists, which is totally counterproductive as a matter of economic development, although perversely, it may make up for some of the lost business by attracting prison tourists (mostly Aussies, of course), who are already a sensation at Kerobokan. The Indonesian authorities already have Dilma Rousseff livid over the recent execution of one Brazilian drug trafficker and the impending execution of another one, the latter one mentally ill. Her government has refused to accept the credentials of the Indonesian ambassador. The diplomatic consequences of judicially massacring foreigners for drug trafficking aren’t over yet. The current batch of drug runners that Indonesia is planning to execute along with Chan and Sukumaran includes a Nigerian, a Ghanaian, the mentally ill Brazilian, a Filipina, a Frenchman, and a Dutchman. An American and a Briton are separately under death sententences, with no execution date set, along with various other foreigners. This is an excellent way to infuriate trading partners.

The Indonesian government isn’t likely to scare its citizens away from drugs with these theatrics. It’s a poor, corrupt country whose drug problem is not a rational response to inadequate enforcement of drug laws. The jackbooted militarism of the Chan and Sukumaran transfers is not going to receive a universally warm response from the locals. Many Indonesians were around for military dictatorship, and even though Indonesia has a much more militarized police force than most of the First World, this death row convoy was over the top. Many Indonesians are probably wondering why so much government money was spent on this grandiose photo op and how the execution of these two Australians who behaved quite well in prison will do fuck-all for gutter junkies and the socioeconomic conditions that breed gutter junkies. It would take a state of emergency or a coup to shut down a legislative inquiry into the waste of government resources on the transfer of two condemned drug traffickers. The spectacle certainly won’t come across to all Indonesians as vigorous law enforcement. To many, it will certainly look more like banana republicanism.

I see a slim chance that the ostentation of this prison transfer will end up resulting in Chan, Sukumuran, and the others who are to be executed alongside them being spared, and a much greater chance that it will result in another death penalty moratorium in Indonesia, especially if this group of convicts is executed. The whole thing may end up being at once ridiculous and horrific enough to get real pushback from the public or the legislature. It’s an exceptionally public and heavyhanded waste of police and military resources.

By the way, the visual parallels with Ferguson are no coincidence, and the US government has long given military aid to Indonesia. So it may be our tax dollars at work, too.

Feel free to add Garuda Indonesia and Wings to Malaysian Airlines when choosing air carriers to avoid like the plague.

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