In the Bible Belt, Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row

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When it comes to the death penalty, guilt or innocence shouldn’t really matter to Christians.  

NASHVILLE — Until August, Tennessee had not put a prisoner to death in nearly a decade. Last Thursday, it performed its third execution in four months.
This was not a surprising turn of events. In each case, recourse to the courts had been exhausted. In each case Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to intervene, though there were many r…

Myuran Sukumaran’s last days before execution were his most powerful, says Archibald Prize winner Ben Quilty

Myuran Sukumaran stands in front of a self-portrait in Kerobokan's workshop.
Myuran Sukumaran stands in front of a self-portrait in Kerobokan's art studio.
In just a few hours he would face the firing squad on the prison island of Nusakambangan, otherwise known as Indonesia’s notorious “death island”.

Along with “mastermind” pal Andrew Chan, they would lead a procession of six other death row prisoners in a rendition of Amazing Grace as they walked towards their fate.

Despite late pleas for clemency, their options were exhausted. Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, made it clear he wasn’t going to budge.

There was no way out. Myuran knew he was going to die. It was God’s plan, he would tell a pastor just before his death.

It’s been less than two years since the convicted drug smugglers were executed at 12.35am local time (3.35am AEST) on April 29, 2015, by a 13-member firing squad.

The young men were marched out of prison with a guard of honour — other inmates shaking hands and hugging them goodbye.

This was the impact of Myuran and Andrew on prison life; these were no ordinary prisoners.

Their stay at Kerobokan prison had paved the way for change, and positive reformation.

As the men stood in a row, refusing to wear blindfolds, they sang Bless the Lord O My Soul. They never got to finish the song.

They were determined to stare death down the barrel.

But earlier that day, Sukumaran wasn’t furious over his fate. But rather the treatment of the others set to face the firing squad.

Indonesian authorities had been denying sufficient interpreters for the condemned who could not understand Indonesian. Some were Iranian and Nigerian, others Brazilian and Filipino, and they were anxiously unaware of what was going on.

“Myuran was very angry about this,” Myuran’s close friend, mentor and Archibald Prize winner Ben Quilty told news.com.au.

“The guards spoke a bit of broken English but all of the directions were given in Indonesian, and they [prisoners] relied on those people having a translator.

“Myuran and Andrew were translating Indonesian into English to try to help them understand what was going on.

“It’s one of the nice things that brought Andrew and Myuran great respect from the other inmates.

“Andrew, Myuran, Matt (Norman, another member of the Bali Nine) and Si (Yi Chen, serving life in prison alongside Norman) were always the go-to guys.

“If new inmates came in and they couldn’t speak the language the men would be summoned and they’d help and negotiate their way through, right until the end.”

It was a tense time for the relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

The men understood the public interest in their case, but when the Indonesian government began to fly military aircraft above Bali’s Kerobokan Prison, things changed.

According to Quilty, Myuran had told his brother, Michael, the planes were deliberately flying over the top of the prison “really low and really loud” in a strange signal to Australia that Indonesia were in a position of power.

“The stupid thing was that Andrew and Myuran were such peaceful men, it’s just insane. A family member was with him and he said it was the most unbelievably horrifying thing he’d seen in his whole life,” Quilty recalled.

“Myuran just quietly said, ‘only a weak man needs to show force’.”

Quilty had met Myuran three years earlier, when he received a note from the notorious Bali Nine ringleader asking questions about art technique. “I think he Googled ‘painting’ and found my name,” Quilty laughs.

“The questions were about technique and medium and materials, which showed me he’d made a real effort to try and do it, I was so intrigued by someone in that predicament doing something like that. It seemed so moving and dramatic and tragic in a sense.

“Myuran became an amazing young artist. Humanity was screaming off the walls.”

After two weeks Myuran’s legal staff called Quilty and said, “I don’t know what you said to him but have a look at this”. They had sent him a photo of Myuran’s studio; the wall was covered in little self portraits he’d made.

“It was facing up to who he was, what he had become, and what his future was. There are a lot of powerful creative metaphors in there for an art practice,” Quilty said.

In no time, the pair were friends, sharing correspondence about the process of art and the anxiety of what lay ahead.

Art became Myuran’s therapy, his religion. He became so frustrated at being locked in his cell at night and couldn’t work, so he set up a mini studio inside.

It’s these pieces of art that now hang in a space thousands of miles away from that tiny cell, in a suburb of Sydney’s west close to where Myuran and Andrew grew up. Another Day In Paradise will be Myuran’s first major exhibition.

Campbelltown Arts Centre, as part of the Sydney Festival, is showcasing Sukumaran’s collection of more than 100 compelling pieces created at Kerobokan jail and on Nusa Kambangan Island.

Among them resides some of Sukumaran’s most gut wrenching work, where during his days he documented his feelings on canvas.

“I think Myuran became far more interested in the human condition and there’s a bleakness to that. The material he had to work with was always in the shadow of his looming execution,” Quilty told news.com.au.

“There’s a lot of people who thought these two young men deserved what was coming for them because they did the crime and therefore they have to do the time, but I challenge anyone to go and see it and come away with this feeling.

“He really did unpick all of the deep grief, horror and fear he was feeling in the studio.”

Their final meeting took place on the day of the last clemency bid rejection, just prior to being moved to “execution island”: Nusa Kambangan.

“He said, ‘just remember my studio in Kerobokan’,” Quilty recalls.

“We stayed in contact right through that last period, but it was so difficult getting anyone on that island.

“The way those two young boys smoking heroin from about 14 ended up facing their end more courageously than anyone I’ve ever heard of, and they faced it, in the end they stood up against the most unimaginable thing.

“They sang Amazing Grace and taught all the others to sing it with them. They chose not to wear the hood, so they stared straight at the people who took their lives.

“No matter what people think of those two boys and their crime, in the end they dealt with their own mortality in the most extraordinary, courageous way.”

Bali's Kerobokan prison
Bali's Kerobokan prison
According to Quilty, Kerobokan had allowed Myuran, Andrew, Matt, Si Yi and a group of prisoners to become “much, much better people, not only to find some form of reformation but to actually start doing serious studies”.

Myuran had nearly finished his full bachelor of fine arts by correspondence at the time of his death.

He was the first inmate to ever own keys to its medical facility. He “literally had keys to the whole prison basically,” Quilty recalled.

Despite its reputation, Kerobokan could be a place of hope. There were computer rooms, and when they had problems with the hard drive, they raised money and put in air conditioners and dehumidifiers.

The art studio, built by Myuran, was filled with easels and materials and linen and canvas. They had proper big screen printing racks to print T-shirts. There was a silversmith workshop where Si Yi Chen taught people how to make jewellery. “The prison allowed that,” Quilty recalled.

But there was a darker side of the prison.

The prison was divided with a fence, literally, in some parts. Drugs one side, and Myuran, Andrew and Matt’s kingdom on the other.

“They [Myuran and co] made it like that, it wasn’t like that when they got there,” Quilty said.

“Some of the Australians were in that section, they were just making their money and making their wages by selling and using drugs.

“The guards allowed that as well as they allowed the educational aspect, in that sense the inmates had a sense of their own dignity and self worth. They had the liberty to make those choices for themselves about what they wanted with their own future.

“It says so much about the guys that they didn’t travel down that path. Matt Norman. Si Yi. They all became drug and alcohol free.

“All of them would do fitness together, they were super fit. Play tennis, box, do weights and continue their education.

“There’s no doubt there’s a bad side, with an absolutely flagrant disregard for anyone.”

But not Myuran. In fact, he became so stringent against drugs he introduced mandatory drug testing to the classes. It’s something Quilty says it’s something prisoners will now “reap the benefits of all the hard work they put into making that prison such an amazing place”.

So now, perhaps, there is hope. A legacy gone, but not forgotten. But for Quilty, the grief projects him to go further in his own discovery.

“It’s a funny feeling, grief, you feel fine and then something hits you,” he said.

“I’m getting stronger and stronger in Myuran’s shadow. He left this body of work for all of us, for all his family and friends; it’s impossible not to be proud about what he did.

“And for all people on death row around the world, it’s this unbelievably potent symbol of how grotesque execution is everywhere.”

For those left behind, the fight for freedom continues.

Norman told News Corp Australia that he dreams of being freed and redeeming himself and still believes that one day he will get a sentence reduction. Chen runs a silversmith workshop in the jail. And last year, Renae Lawrence, another of the Bali Nine, had another six months shaved off her 20-year sentence for drug trafficking.

Norman and Chen are the only two members of the Bali Nine now held in Kerobokan jail. Lawrence is in a different jail in Bali, as is Scott Rush.

Martin Stephens, Tan Duch Tanh Nguyen and Michael Czugaj are in jails in Java, having been moved by authorities.

“I don’t believe I would die in this place. If it (reduction) doesn’t happen this year we try again next year,” Norman told journalist Cindy Wockner.

“We are not getting any younger. It would be good to go home soon and start our lives again with all the skills we have learned in here. It would be good to go home and start fresh.”

Source: news.com.au, Matt Young, January 30, 2017

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