The journey from death row

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?

By Deborah Cassrels
Published 15 August 2017
Reading time: 28 minutes

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.

A new wall at Wijaya Pura Quay opposite prisoners' arrivals and departures on Nusakambangan has mostly obscured the prison island. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

A new wall at Wijaya Pura Quay opposite prisoners' arrivals and departures on Nusakambangan has mostly obscured the prison island. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

CILACAP JAIL, IN the town centre, faces a small football field doubling as a community hub where food vendors do a thriving business as children play – all shuttered to inmates.

Nearby, villagers flock to Seleko wharf snapping up fishermen’s daily catches and fresh produce brought from lush Nusakambangan about 2km away across a narrow strait.

The mood is not so convivial round the corner at Wijaya Pura quay. A dour police guard surveys me from a security wall, built last year in a vain attempt to maintain a veil of secrecy over the so-called Execution Island for which an access permit is required. Neither does the government divulge data on death row numbers but Jakarta’s Legal Aid Institute (LBH) estimates 217 people await execution, 135 for drug offences.

The quay faces the island’s Sodong port entrance where coffins are ferried to and fro during frenzied periods of executions – a fairly frequent occurrence under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration and tough drugs stance.

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

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.

“I wanted to look beautiful when my daughter saw me in the coffin.”

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, notjust 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.”

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.

So violent were the thunderstorms lashing Nusakambangan as the four faced the firing squad, that the electricity box exploded.

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.

Sunday Mass with Irish Catholic priest at Cilacap, Father Charlie Burrows. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

Sunday Mass with Irish Catholic priest at Cilacap, Father Charlie Burrows. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

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.

Utami has lost 16 years of her life in jail. During that time, her 14-year-old son died from a heart condition in 2004. She didn’t know until she called her family several days after his birthday; they were burying him.

“I wanted to say happy birthday, my son.”

She was not allowed to attend his funeral.

“It’s not fair, I didn’t do anything to be punished with the death penalty.”

Produce is brought from Nusakambangan penal island to Cilacap's Seleko port. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

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.

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.

“Do we have enough confidence in the process that we can without any doubt know if that person is getting a fair trial?”

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.”

Sodong port, entrance to the prison island of Nusakambangan. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

ON A STEAMY Bali afternoon in 2008, convicted Nigerian drug trafficker Titus Ani quietly bantered with some of the Bali Nine members in Kerobokan jail’s packed visiting area.

The Australians had taken the death-row inmate under their wing. Ani shared a cell with Scott Rush in the so-called Death Tower and the same fate, but none of his resources.

In a high-profile final appeal, Rush’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2011 after his Australian and Indonesian legal team argued Rush was a mule, not an organiser of the 2005 heroin plot, and showed remorse for his actions.

At Rush’s instigation, some of his former lawyers, including retired Northern Territory barrister Colin McDonald QC, have banded together to help the Nigerian inmate escape the firing squad, in a potential test case that has taken years of preparation. Several Nigerians in the last round went to their deaths under false identities.

Ani had been sentenced to death under a different name in 2005 for trying to smuggle 396g of heroin ingested in capsules through Jakarta’s airport.

Initially, he received a life sentence, but on appealing its severity, the Bali High Court upgraded it to death, a common occurrence in Indonesia. On appeal to the Supreme Court, it was rejected.

Charged as Emmanuel O Iheijrika from Sierra Leone, his lawyers argue Ani is not the person he was sentenced as, a recidivist drug importer, ‘Emmanuel’, but a first offender with mitigating circumstances.

Under Indonesian law, if a person is charged under a false identity, he could be freed – invoking an error in persona, says, Frans Winata, one of Ani’s Indonesian lawyers who represented Rush.

“The defendant is not the correct person to be tried. The name in his passport is Titus Ani.”

“Sometimes when I wake up I can’t speak to anyone. I don’t feel good. I worry and often I don’t eat for days. Nobody cares.”

I met him as Emmanuel O Ihejirika. Clad in long grey pants and collared navy shirt, he was the best dressed in the sweltering jail. On each of my visits, we sat on the hard, tiled floor, clouds of cigarette smoke hanging in the oppressive air. He brought me a cushion to spare me the filthy floor and a fan to ward off fainting.

Quietly spoken and surprisingly composed, he was petrified of the horror of execution.

“Sometimes when I wake up I can’t speak to anyone,” he told me. “I don’t feel good. I worry and often I don’t eat for days. Nobody cares.”

Apart from an uncle, his family didn’t know of his arrest or incarceration, let alone that he faced the death penalty. He said his mother “would drop dead from a heart attack, so I keep it secret”.

In reality, he told no one because a drug syndicate had allegedly threatened to murder his family if he revealed his true identity. To prove they were serious, they reportedly took the drastic measure of killing his sister, Blessing, apparently confirmed by other family members.

Ani, claiming in an affidavit in 2010 he had been entrapped and threatened by the syndicate, was convicted in 2004 under the name Emmanuel O Iheijrika, from Sierra Leone, in a case of mistaken identity.

His judicial appeal (PK), filed but pending a decision in Indonesia’s Supreme Court, is a last-ditch legal chance to save him from the firing squad. A PK must include errors of fact and new evidence.

When Ani left Nigeria in 2003 for work in Pakistan, the syndicate allegedly stole his passport, leaving him stranded with no option but to carry the drugs, enabling him to return to Nigeria. Offered $2000 and a false passport, he believed he was going to Hong Kong. He had concealed his identity in previous court hearings to protect his family.

Now in Porong jail in Surabaya, west Java, Ani, 39, suffers acute schizophrenia exacerbated by “death-row syndrome” from years in judicial limbo, according to Indonesian psychiatrists.

Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, asked seconds before being shot: “Am I to be executed?”

A Memorandum of Motion to Reconsider Ani’s case was filed in 2013 but the Denpasar District Court lost the dossier and for years the case lay dormant. Now resumed, Australian lawyers acting pro bono – Russell Thirgood, a former president of Amnesty Australia, Brisbane barrister Roland Peterson and Bali-based Colin McDonald – are working with Indonesian counterparts Frans Winata and Robert Khuana. US-based Nigerian barrister Emmanuel Ogebe is also involved while Amnesty International has long campaigned to have Ani’s sentence downgraded.

In a multi-pronged defence – supported by the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory – lawyers claim Ani, a one-time courier acting under duress, carried the passport of a repeat drug smuggler named Emmanuel O Ihejirika.

United Nations documentation of Ani’s refugee status application in Pakistan confirms he was not Ihejirika, whose passport Ani held. It revealed multiple trips to Asia in 2003 at the time Ani had been arrested. DNA evidence, testimony from Ani’s family in Nigeria and Pakistan, and psychiatric reports have been submitted.

Lawyers also argue it is unconstitutional to apply the death penalty to someone severely mentally ill.

“We hope he can get life imprisonment or maybe 20 years. It is a strong case. It’s not fair for someone mentally ill to get the death penalty,” says Khuana.

Though Indonesian law prohibits sentencing people with mental illness no law stops their execution, as evidenced in the 2015 case of Brazilian schizophrenic Rodrigo Gularte, who seconds before being shot asked: “Am I to be executed?’

Father Burrows said Gularte’s voices in his head told him he would be extradited to Brazil.

Ani, a devout Catholic from an impoverished village, garnered significant support and donations from Brisbane’s Catholic community after Rush brought his plight to Kerobokan visitors’ attention. Rush’s parents, Christine and Lee Rush, have been active supporters through their Brisbane parish.

CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, Father Frank Brennan, on the 10th anniversary of the Bali bombings, raised Ani’s struggle in Brisbane at an Australian Lawyers for Human Rights dinner.

“Titus Ani was only the victim, the courier, a poor man. He doesn’t know anything.”

“Over the years, Scott and Emmanuel have each written to some of you here this evening. Brisbane lawyers have been exemplary in their provision of pro bono assistance to Emmanuel.”

Amid previous confusion, there was concern Ani had been listed for execution.”We sent a letter several times to the Attorney-General to say we already launched the PK so don’t put him on the execution list. They didn’t respond but actually Titus Ani was not on the list,” Khuana told me.

Though Indonesian law stipulates all legal avenues must be exhausted before execution, it is not always so. Last year they proceeded amid allegations of unfair trials.

Amnesty International has claimed half of all prisoners facing the firing squad in Indonesia were subjected to police brutality, with foreigners frequently denied a translator or consular services.

Khuana argues the 396g of heroin Ani was carrying was far below the 5k to 6k in many cases delivering 15-year sentences, and he refers to the fact Ani may have been singled out as a Nigerian.

Ani told me he was given the death sentence because he is black. He also cited other foreigners serving lesser sentences convicted with larger amounts of drugs.

“Titus Ani was only the victim, the courier, a poor man. He doesn’t know anything,” Khuana reiterates.

Ani had previously made another fortuitous contact in Kerobokan with multimillionaire Australian yachtsman Chris Packer.

Packer, who died in 2013, was held in Kerobokan for three months for failing to declare firearms on board his boat in 2004. On his release, Packer arranged financial support for Ani’s legal representation but the money was stolen.

Ani’s story leading to his arrest, is one of destitution, poverty and violence. In a pitiful, admission he told me the jail was a safe haven: “If I didn’t have the death sentence, it would be OK in here. I come from a poor family so I can survive any condition.”

Drug convicts, executed in two rounds in 2015, middle, from left Nigerian Okwudili Oyatanze (April 29) and Brazilian Marco Archer Cardoso Moreira (January 18). (Photo: Supplied)

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.”

Azhar, a 20-year veteran of rights law, last year explosively lifted the lid on corrupt law enforcers’ links with drug kingpin Freddy Budiwan, the only Indonesian to be executed in the last round and, up till then, still in business.

Budiwan, who was sentenced to death in 2012 for smuggling 1.4 million ecstasy pills from China, met Azhar during his visits to death-row inmates. Budiwan divulged that over the years he had passed Rp450 billion ($A45.50 million) to the narcotics agency and Rp90 billion to police.

When Azhar, in a published article, linked officials to Budiwan’s drug network he was vilified and threatened by police, the military and the National Narcotics Agency with defamation charges. The charges were suspended.

“From the mafia point of view, especially in drug cases, the death penalty distracts from the big cases, the drug business. Those to be executed are the middle players; they have bosses. If they are still alive they will talk about the crime. It is linked to so many sectors inside and outside the government. (Execution) makes them disappear.

“I would speak out again. Freddy wanted to ensure his experience, his knowledge would be a lesson. There cannot be change in this short time but I think the government cannot easily execute people anymore.”

“Why are you targeting us, black people?” they challenged prison officials.

On a clear Jakarta night in May, Ricky Gunawan addressed a crowd on the death penalty.

He has devoted 10 years to its abolition and to improving the “dysfunctional” justice system.

Last month it paid off. The Ombudsman, Ninik Rahayu, declared there was“maladministration” in the 2016 execution of Gunawan’s client Nigerian drug smuggler Humphrey Jefferson “Jeff” Ejike Eleweke.

Rahayu said there had been “negligence and discrimination practised by the Attorney-General’s Office and the Supreme Court”.

Eleweke’s clemency decision was pending when he was executed under the 72 hours stipulated after notification by authorities. The Attorney-General’s Office simply countered that it had adhered to regulations.

Gunawan, who is representing seven death-row inmates, is not phased. He continues to pursue justice for Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic executed in 2015.

“The Ombudsman’s findings confirmed our allegations that... the Attorney-General’s Office violated the clemency and execution law.” he says.

“This should serve as a warning to the AGO. Rather than preparing any future executions, the AGO should improve their institution.”

Nigerians have been targeted at such a disturbing rate over the past two years – 50 per cent of the second batch in 2015 and 75 per cent last year – that their claims of a flawed legal process, including forced confessions, brutality and racism erupted internationally. Amnesty International noted Eleweke’s initial lack of access to a lawyer, interpreter, the court’s impartiality and torture.

Capital punishment, implemented by the Dutch colonists who abolished it at home in 1870, remains a convenient political tool in Indonesia, says Azhar, of KontraS.

Most of those facing the firing squad under Widodo’s administration have been foreigners. Seen to minimise a backlash at home, it would also deflect criticism of government hypocrisy in the bid to save Indonesians on death-row abroad.

But Nigerians, citing discrimination and their government’s apathy saw themselves as pawns in a political game.

Before Eleweke was executed, a trial judge contended "black-skinned people from Nigeria" were being targeted for surveillance for suspected drug trafficking.

The director for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dicky Komar, denies there is discrimination.

“We maintain the principle of non-discrimination in the case of executions and we never target any specific group of people, particularly foreigners.”

The day before last year’s executions, anger erupted among the Nigerians.

“Why are you targeting us, black people?” they challenged prison officials. Enraged, a ruckus ensued, furniture was thrown, glass broken.

Striking at the core of a bleak morality tale, Gunawan broke down last year while addressing the United Nations General Assembly on capital punishment in Indonesia. In a voice choked with emotion, he described the death penalty “not just as simply wrong; it is useless, it is senseless and it must stop”.

He got a standing ovation. The government, on hearing he would represent Indonesia, had dispatched an emissary for the job but Gunawan doggedly stood his ground.

Under Indonesia’s Constitution, the death penalty violates the right to life and breaches the country’s international human rights obligations. And under Pancasila, the death penalty breaches one of its five fundamental principles: A just and civilised humanity.

Former prosecutor and current commissioner of Indonesia’s State Prosecutor Oversight Commission, Ferdinand Andi-Lolo. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

Former prosecutor and current commissioner of Indonesia’s State Prosecutor Oversight Commission, Ferdinand Andi-Lolo. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

SOMETHING OF A pariah among his peers, former prosecutor and current commissioner of Indonesia’s State Prosecutor Oversight Commission, Ferdinand Andi-Lolo, openly condemns Indonesia’s lack of judicial transparency. “I am in the minority,” he tells me.

If some have gone to their deaths wrongly convicted, he won’t comment.

Yet, he concedes the legal system is flawed. Bribery among judges, prosecutors and police is producing “compromised sentences”, and the most vulnerable link in Indonesia’s constitutional system is the judiciary, he says.

“The legal process is the problem; executions are legal.

“When someone gets the death penalty it must be based on strong legally admissible evidence that can be fairly challenged by the lawyer and the defendant. At the moment it’s not good enough.”

So is remuneration the problem? “No, salaries are more than adequate these days. It’s just pure greed,” he says.

In a legal career spanning nearly two decades, starting in NSW, Andi-Lolo’s pro-death penalty stance for terrorists and “drug kingpins - not mules” has crystallised in and outside court. Advocating protection for the masses, he maintains the death penalty sends a strong message to traffickers - despite figures to the contrary.

In 2000 while helping a relative at hospital emergency, he was shocked to witness a teenager dying of a drug overdose.

“I was there for hours watching his hands and toes turn blue. He died in excruciating agony before his grieving mother. The family was so poor they could not afford medicine for him or an ambulance to take the body home. I have seen several deaths but this one from drugs was the most horrible.”

Andi-Lolo’s depiction is reality to many Indonesians who believe the death penalty deters drug crimes. Eighty-four per cent support it while 60.8 per cent claim drugs “destroy the young generation”, a 2015 Indo Barometer survey found.

Yet drug cases increased 13 per cent after two rounds of executions from 2014 to the end of 2015, according to the National Narcotics Agency. About 50 per cent of the overcrowded prisons are filled with drug offenders and rehabilitation is weak.

Produce brought from Nusakambangan penal island to Cilacap's Seleko port. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

SPECULATION OVER WIDODO’S sudden decision to reinstate executions after a four-year hiatus centres on his popularity. Two months after Widodo’s inauguration in October 2014, he requested support from the nation’s largest, moderate Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, to restart executions of death-row drug convicts. Top Muslim clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council, heeded the call in February, 2015.

National Narcotics Agency figures, later discredited, spurred the campaign. UK medical journal The Lancet and Indonesian academics in June 2015 proved data estimating 4.5 million illegal drug users and 40 to 50 Indonesians die from drugs daily had been cherry-picked to legitimize the punitive policy.

The figures were marginally downgraded in July, the agency citing 4 million drug users and a death rate estimated at 33.

Widodo’s 2014 vow to be tough on drug offenders ran in tandem with corruption and human rights campaigns and in his first two years, 122 new death sentences were issued.

After he nominated graft suspect Budi Gunawan for police chief in January 2015, his support plummeted. The nomination, purportedly a sop to Megawati Sukarnoputri, Widodo’s boss in the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, outraged supporters who had elected him on a platform of clean governance and reform.

The executions, say Widodo critics, were politically motivated but they didn’t stop his approval rating sliding to 42.3 per cent in late January 2015, compared with 72 per cent in August the previous year, according to an Indonesian Survey Circle study.

His popularity, at 66 per cent this year, has only just improved.

Meanwhile, the condemned wait at the mercy of a fluctuating national mood and government strategy.

As a final wish granted to inmates before execution, Utami requested a presidential pardon which has no time limit. She also asked to see her then three-month-old grandson who she had never met. That wish was granted. The clemency decision is still in limbo.

She longs to return to Tangerang Women’s Penitentiary in west Java – her home of 14 years – but that may send the wrong message, that her execution was voided. Gunawan’s repeated requests for information have gone unanswered.

“You never forget,” Burrows mutters bleakly, adding he has been forbidden from witnessing further shootings.

Under death’s shadow, Utami appears remarkably dignified. Her faith in God gives her strength, she tells me.

It’s a huge help, concedes Burrows, who counsels death-row prisoners for years, and is often the last friendly face they see before execution.

“The ones who hold up better are those with faith. I tell them you may be locked up, but you are free in your head.”

Burrows doesn’t have much to work with when he lends succour to the condemned in the hours before execution. But he does something that, for the secular, sounds remarkably like hypnotherapy.

“I pray over people; they relax and fall asleep.”

During the experience called Resting in the Spirit, a person remains conscious while resting, but is reportedly under the power of the Holy Spirit. Not everyone gets there.

As activist and witness to the gruesome process, Burrows, has steadfastly relayed the last traumatic minutes of life to the media and in court.

He first watched two Nigerian heroin smugglers shot dead in 2008 and later that year testified in a legal challenge to the Constitutional Court that death by firing squad is torture. He graphically described the men moaning, the blood seeping from their bullet wounds and the agony they suffered before being pronounced dead 10 minutes later.

“You never forget,” he mutters bleakly, adding he has been forbidden from witnessing further shootings.

Burrows testified as a factual witness at the behest of Jakarta lawyer Wirawan Adnan, who defended Bali bombers, Imam Samudra, and brothers Amrozi bin Nurhasyim and Ali Ghufron. They were executed in 2008 for the blast that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians in 2002.

The challenge was rejected.

“I don’t agree with anyone being executed,” says Burrows. Now he is trying to challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty on the grounds that waiting on death row is torture.

Jakarta lawyer Wirawan Adnan. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

Jakarta lawyer Wirawan Adnan. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

Adnan, a proponent of capital punishment for murder and terrorism, believes there should be a more humane method of execution than by gunshot.

In the current climate he asserts a moratorium, which would deviate from the Koran, is implausible. “Many want to keep it as it appears in sharia law.”

But the death penalty for drugs is useless, he says. He defended Bali Nine mule Martin Stephens who is serving a life term in east Java, contending the hapless gang are not really criminals.

“Traffickers know Indonesia carries the death penalty but …. you don’t apply it to stupid people. In many cases, that’s what happening. The operators don’t get caught.

“Also, I question Australia – why did the Australian Federal Police share information with Indonesian police? Do they want the death penalty but prefer other people to carry it out?” The AFP was condemned for tipping off Indonesian authorities which led to the 2005 arrests of the Bali Nine.

During the Bali bombers’ trials, Adnan was subjected to death threats and verbal abuse by outraged Australians but he maintains the principle of a fair trial should be upheld for everyone.

“I felt they deserved proper defence. I knew they were guilty but does that preclude them from a fair trial?”

It’s a complaint long vented by lawyers representing death-row inmates.

Father Charlie Burrows with photos of executed inmates. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

IN JANUARY 2015, Burrows was denied access to Brazilian drug convict Marco Archer Cardoso Moreira to administer last rites and comfort at his execution. Burrows described a horrifying, unedifying scene in which Moreira was dragged to his death, sobbing until the last minute.

At 74, the Irish missionary who has worked in Cilacap for 44 years, and in Bankstown, Sydney, for two, has no intention of eschewing his Nusakambangan duty.

“It has made me stronger against the death penalty.” Does he think it will be abolished in his lifetime? “You just keep pushing. It’s evolution, so it’s going to happen,” he asserts.

His abolitionist fight is fuelled by inmates like Rodrigo Gularte. Burrows handed me multiple, bulging folders profiling a life of misery, misfortune and severe mental illness amid futile efforts for clemency and the government’s intransigent rejection.

Despite a genetic history of psychiatric illness, and doctors’ reports from the age of 13, Gularte never had a chance, concedes Christina Widiantarti, part of his Legal Aid team.

Lawyer Christina Widiantarti with Nusakambangan Island in the background. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

Lawyer Christina Widiantarti with Nusakambangan Island in the background. (Photo: Deborah Cassrels)

Also a member of Burrows’ staff, Widiantarti was a constant in Gularte’s last three months of life.

His mental illness at the time of conviction, by law, should have precluded him from execution. Asked why it didn’t, a former director of mental health, Dr Irmansyah who testified for Gularte, explained simply to me: “Indonesian authorities have no understanding of mental illness.”

The 42-year-old, who was sentenced to death for attempting to smuggle 6kg of cocaine sealed in surfboards into Jakarta in 2004, had first used drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Later they compounded his hallucinations for which he was never treated in jail.

So acute were they that psychiatrists recommended shortly before his execution that he be transferred to a mental health facility.

From the get-go when his embassy inadvertently chose a state lawyer, he was disadvantaged. In court he was denied a translator.

Widiantarti’s most poignant, painful memory during the 72 hours’ notice before his execution were his pitiful childlike pleas on three different occasions: “Please help me, Christina, help me.” She still carries the impotence and guilt.

It brings the diminutive 53-year-old to tears.”It was the hardest, worst period of my life.” When she considered walking away, it was Gularte’s cousin and guardian, Angelita Muxfeldt, herself overwhelmed, who pleaded with her to stay.

The day before his execution, while Gularte was speaking, Widiantari was struck by the sickening realisation it would be their last conversation. Oblivious the end was nigh, his voice seemed to trail off as though in a fog.

Both Widiantarti and Burrows tried to impress the reality on him, to prepare him.

“He became very angry when told the president had rejected his clemency. He said ‘it’s not true, I won’t be executed’. He believed it wouldn’t happen.”

Lawyers, spiritual counsellors and embassy officials prayed together in a tent by the execution site. When the volley of gunshots ricocheted out “we screamed – we cried, wailed. We were there from 11pm until 4am. I saw (Gularte’s) coffin into the port (of Cilacap).”

Deeply scarred, Widiantarti stopped accompanying Burrows on his regular counselling visits to Nusakambangan.

Last year, the nightmare returned when the four drug convicts were shot dead on her doorstep, across the strait.

“When it happened again last year, I said ‘oh no, I don’t want my country to be a killer country,” she says, her voice keening at the bitter memory.