Myuran Sukumaran at a painting class given by visiting friend and Australian artist Ben Quilty atKerobokan jail in February, 2013. Photo: Jason Childs Myuran Sukumaran at a painting class given by visiting friend and Australian artist Ben Quilty atKerobokan jail in February, 2013. Photo: Jason Childs
Myuran Sukumaran at a painting class given by visiting friend and Australian artist Ben Quilty atKerobokan jail in February, 2013. Photo: Jason Childs
Australian artist Ben Quilty teaches Sukumaran to paint in Kerobokan Prison. Photo: Jason Childs
Sukumaran’s painting teacher Tina Bailey holds a painting of the Indonesian flag dripping with blood, created on the day before his execution. Photo: James Brickwood
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On February 19, the callous cruelty of the Indonesian justice system was on full display, taunting Myuran Sukumaran again with false hopes.
The country’s Attorney-General, H.M. Prasetyo, had announced a week earlier that Sukumaran and fellow Bali nine inmate Andrew Chan would be transferred imminently to the prison island, Nusakambangan, where they were ultimately to be shot.
A week had passed, though, with no further news – an agony of time borne out of the country’s endemic official dysfunction.
“Are you there?” I inquired of Sukumaran, using an email address we had employed over two or more years to communicate, clandestinely, about art and prison life and the progress of his case.
“Still here,” came the reply.
I asked how he was.
“It’s been really hard. There seems to be a little bit of hope now.
“Sometimes I wonder if it would be more humane just to do it and get it over with them making us all suffer like this, prolonging our misery.”
Sukumaran’s misery ended early on Wednesday morning, along with all the hopes and dreams and artistic drive that had kept him sane during his decade in Kerobokan prison.
I had met Chan and interviewed him inside Kerobokan prison, but Sukumaran I came to know. He was a remarkable character and a good man. Our first encounter was in February 2012 in the ashes of Kerobokan’s administrative centre, after rioters chased out all the guards and tried to burn down the prison. As we squatted on a clear bit of floor, Sukumaran told me how he had stood throughout that night with a crowbar near to hand, guarding the prison’s armory as gang members tried to beat down the doors to get to the guns inside.
“I was hoping they wouldn’t succeed,” he said, “because then I’d have to fight them.”
By the time of the riot, the young Australian had already set up the prison art room, a computer centre, T-shirt printing facility and silver shop. The aim was to rehabilitate himself and others, and give his fellow prisoners something to do other than fight and take drugs.
One of many of Indonesia’s infuriating hypocrisies is that much of the drug trade is controlled by the police and army (which is why low level smugglers are the only ones ever prosecuted). Drugs, and the gangs who sell them, are rampant inside prison. Sukumaran himself stood staunch against both.
He deployed enormous effort to keep gang members and drug users out of his beloved studio.
“I’m so sick of all the gang stuff in here,” he emailed me in October 2013 as I researched a story on the largest gang, Laskar Bali. “It never ends, I hope this new warden will be a bit tougher.
“I’ve had some fights with them, a couple very serious. Their [sic] like my mortal enemies now … Even the guards are unofficial and some official members of those groups.”
When that story was published the following year, Sukumaran offered a gentle critique, saying it was “a little understated about Kerobokan prison”.
“I’ve been really frustrated with this prison at the moment with how pro-[gang] they are! … Now there [sic] even in the workshop trying do projects to make them look good and to cover up their drug businesses and to look good in front of the officials.”
Still, he painted and hoped, and kept the hopes of others alive.
In February, 2013, over a two-day art workshop with artist Ben Quilty, his character was on full display. He described his work with other prisoners as also “a kind of art”.
The best hope to save his life, he believed, was for the former president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to grant clemency as his term as president came to an end late last year. It would have been a brave move, but would have carried no political cost because SBY could not run again.
As the election neared and there was no news, Sukumaran expressed his frustration.
“Now it’s already July and SBY is soon to leave office and theirs [sic] still no indication if he will make a decision,” he emailed.
Then in October, he said, the consulate relayed news from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop after a meeting in Bali with her counterpart Marty Natalegawa that SBY “cannot make a decision”.
Like most, though, Sukumaran viewed the election of Joko Widodo as the next best outcome. Surely the new president, an apparent humanitarian, would recognise that these men did not deserve to die.
It was not to be. In December, 2014, mouthing the words of hardliners in his camp, Joko announced that there would be no clemency for any drug smuggler. Sukumaran was desperate for more information.
“Just read your article!!! Is it true? What else do you know?” he emailed urgently.
Over the month, Joko firmed in his decision, despite admitting he had not read individual case files and did not even know that Chan and Sukumaran had been trying to export drugs from Indonesia rather than import them.
Later in December, Sukumaran wrote he was “Very STRESSED out, we all are!”.
“We were hoping things would get better with Jokowi, that he would abolish the death penalty but things seem to have gone from bad to worse!! After almost 10 years inside you know we should feel like we’re on the down swing of all this, not be facing a firing squad … I don’t even know what to do or think about this stuff anymore.”
Sukumaran’s first thought, and his first response to questions was always for his beloved mother, Raji. During the circus that accompanied Schapelle Corby’s release in February, 2014, he appealed to me for news about the media scrum outside the prison, because Raji, coincidentally, was visiting that week and he didn’t want her jostled.
He would have been outraged that she was virtually trampled by the media at the port of Cilacap on the eve of his execution.
As the process leading to his death dragged on, and a particular photograph of Sukumaran and Chan was published almost daily, he passed on in December his mother’s request to use something else, saying, “she said that the pic makes us look like mean criminals, when actually we’re very nice criminals!”.
And on January 7, when he was officially informed that Joko had rejected his clemency bid, Sukumaran’s first thought was for his mum: “I’m shocked and don’t know what to say. My mum’s on the floor, tears, crying and can’t talk.”
Then anger set in.
“All the big drug dealers are free and clear to do what they want cause they pay people off big time! That is the only thing me and Andrew can’t do, is to pay big money,” he wrote.
“We were attempting to take drugs out of Indonesia not importing [them]. We failed. We f…d up. We were wrong, we know that. We’re paying for that. Our families are paying for our mistake.
“We’ve changed. We’ve done so much in the last six to seven years, more than most prisoners in prisons all over the world … What use will executing us be? It won’t stop the drugs here. It will just be a cover so the big people [can] continue doing what they are doing. We’ve changed. We don’t deserve to be executed.
“Our families shouldn’t have to suffer like this.”
On 12.35am local time on Wednesday, Myuran Sukumaran got what he did not deserve. His family will suffer from that moment for the rest of their lives.
At least, though, the ridiculous Indonesian “justice” system is no longer prolonging his misery.