Tuesday, May 31, 2005

in the bali of the beast

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, there are 155 Australians in overseas jails on drug charges. Most are being held in in South-East Asian countries, most of which allow the death penalty. Two Australians are on death row in Vietnam.

The most recent bust involved nine people being caught in Bali attempting to bring heroin into Australia. Eight alleged mules, one organiser. Four of the mules were arrested at the airport with several kilos strapped to their bodies, the other four in a hotel room where the strapping took place. Some outrage in Australia, mainly from those concerned with civil liberties, primarily because it was a joint Australian-Indonesian police operation which could just as easily been brought to a head by arresting the mules as they entered Australia. But there is no death penalty in Australia. Instead, the Australian Federal Police allowed the arrest to take place in Bali, fully aware that at least those carrying the drugs will probably be executed.

Aside from that there is little sympathy. These are unattractive people.

But the headlines of the last couple of months have been about an Australian woman, Schapelle Corby, in her twenties, photogenic, busted coming into Bali's Denpasar Airport last October with 4.1 kilos of marijuana in her boogie board bag. She proclaimed her innocence, saying the dope had not been there when she left the Gold Coast. Theories abounded, the one with the most currency being that baggage handlers were routinely smuggling dope around Australia in passengers' luggage, & this transshipment had somehow gone astray. This theory was given some credibility when (a) a passenger on a plane looked out the window before take-off to see a baggage-handler driving across the tarmac wearing a camel suit, not something you would miss, taken out of the luggage that the passenger had checked in some time before & (b) a baggage handler was busted in Sydney for smuggling 10 kilos of coke out of Sydney airport that had come in on an overseas flight.

Little activity in the media for about four months. The story really starts when a "Gold Coast entrepreneur" offered to pay her defence costs & arranged for a legal team to be assembled. An aside here. "Gold Coast entrepreneur" is almost a tautology. The life cycle for most entrepreneurs in Australia is: get rich quick with other people's money / go bankrupt owing millions / get convicted of fraud or theft. Yet they have a certain cachet about them, even if those who operate on the Gold Coast could more properly be regarded as carpetbaggers & the others little more than white-collar criminals who always seem to have sufficient money left over to ensure both the best legal representation & the least possible prison time.

It now transpires that this one was possibly bankrupt before he offered to pay the legal fees. No matter. At the time he came across like a white knight, proclaiming the innocence of the accused, offering to pay whatever it would cost to prove it. The momentum started picking up. TV crews & journalists began to arrive. Bali's jails seem exposed to the world; prisoners can talk through the bars to reporters, the arrival at court is almost like an arranged photo opportunity, prisoner & guards stopping to have pictures taken, to talk to the crush. Seeking the death penalty was mooted by the prosecution, then dropped in favour of a life sentence.

As the trial proceeded, the media attention became more intense. As well it might. One of the tv networks had contracted the defendant for $500,000 for exclusive rights to her story, a print subsidiary a further $250,000. The others were fighting over the crumbs & what was available in the public arena. Plus all the elements of high drama were there. The prosecutor boasted of never having lost even one of the hundreds of drug cases he had tried, the Defense lawyer had never handled one before. Someone on remand in Australia came forward to say that he had overheard two fellow remandees laughing about how one of (baggage handler) X's drug shipments had gone astray & had ended up in Bali. He of the hearsay evidence was flown to Bali, tidied up & appeared as a witness. The defendant collapsed in court under the stress, or was too ill to attend. On the final day of the hearings a fax, prepared by the Australia Foreign Ministry under public pressure, & outlining the airport drug-smuggling allegations, was tendered. Throughout it all, the judges sat impassive, like the Fates.

& underlining it all, underpinning the antagonism towards the Indonesian justice system, the doubt it could ever deliver a just result, was the recent memory of the quashing of the convictions of several of the Bali bombers. They had been been tried for charges based on laws hurriedly brought in after the tragedy in Bali where many Australians had been amongst those killed in the bomb blasts. But the laws were not retrospective, & so what they had been charged with were technically not crimes at the time they committed them.

It became obvious that Corby was going to be found guilty. In fact, this was probably obvious from the start. There are two types of criminal legal systems. Those, like Indonesia, that start from a presumption of guilt; those, like Australia, that are supposed to start from a presumption of innocence. The lack of defense evidence was immense. I mean, what can you say when kilos of dope are found in your luggage & you've made an overt gesture to stop the customs official from opening it?

Part of the story is that of the damsel in distress, held captive by the forces of evil, facing death or at least life behind bars. The perceived gestalt of Asian jails, even though that in Bali is regarded as possibly the most humane, is on a par with the Turkish prison of Midnight Express, without the anal penetration.

The other part of the story is the bigotry that has again surfaced in Australia, though it always bubbles there, usually just out of view. This is a country that has only in my lifetime done away with what was known as the White Australia policy, that only declared the Aborigines who have inhabited this land for 40,000 years as citizens 40 years ago. It is a country that treats its indigenous population poorly, asylum seekers atrociously, that locks up children in detention camps, that even deports its own citizens. It is a country where people have asked that the money they donated to the Tsunami appeal now be returned because the Indonesians are undeserving of it. It is a country where a radio commentator can describe the judges in the Corby trial & Indonesians generally as "monkeys" who "can't even speak English".

The verdict was handed down last Friday &, just like it does when the Melbourne Cup, Australia's most famous horse race, is run, the nation stopped to watch it broadcast live on at least a couple of the networks. The sentence was twenty years imprisonment. People cried. The Foreign Minister said the Government would begin formal discussions within ten days for a deal whereby Corby would be allowed to serve her sentence in Australia. The Prime Minister says he will talk to his Indonesian counterpart once all available avenues have been explored. Both sides have said they will appeal the severity/leniency of the sentence.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, the unattractive or Australian citizens of a different ethnicity await their death.

1 comment:

Martin Edmond said...

Exemplary, Mark. I tried to get this imbroglio straight in a piece last week & had to give up - thanx.