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Indonesian death penalties 'brutal reminder' on drugs: Australian PM

Asian Pacific News, September 7, 2006

SYDNEY : Death sentences passed in Indonesia on six young Australians were a "brutal reminder" of the stupidity of smuggling drugs in Asia, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said.

Howard pledged to appeal to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to spare the lives of the men, convicted of trying to smuggle heroin from the resort island of Bali to Australia, but warned he was not optimistic.

He was speaking to reporters after Indonesia confirmed Wednesday that the Supreme Court had imposed four more death penalties on members of the so-called Bali Nine.

Howard said he had "no sympathy for drug traffickers and nor do millions of Australians", but the government was opposed to the death penalty and would do all it could to stop the four, as well as two others sentenced earlier, facing a firing squad.

"I don't think people should entertain too many optimistic thoughts because it's difficult, but we will try hard and we will put the case against the death penalty," he told reporters.

Howard also repeated his regular warning to Australians against becoming involved in drug dealing in Asia.

"This whole case is another brutal reminder to young Australians of the folly, the stupidity, the insanity of having anything to do with drug trafficking in Asia," he said.

The sentences have been widely criticised in Australia, where they have been compared to the lesser penalties imposed on some Indonesians convicted of terrorism offences.

In June, Howard said millions of Australians were distressed by the release of radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who was jailed for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 88 Australian holidaymakers.

The alleged spiritual chief of the militant Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah was freed after serving less than 26 months for conspiracy over the bombings which killed a total of 202 people.

Howard also criticised the "breakdown inside Indonesia" which led to the Australian government learning from the media about the new death penalties, which were passed when the four appealed against their long prison sentences.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he hoped the situation would not hurt relations between Canberra and Jakarta, which were strained earlier this year when Australia granted visas to a group of Papuan asylum seekers.

The Bali Nine were arrested in April 2005 for trying to smuggle 8.3 kilogrammes (18 pounds) of heroin from the Indonesian island to Australia.

Two men described as ringleaders, Andrew Chan, 22, and Myuran Sukumaran, 25, were sentenced to death at their trials earlier this year while the others were given jail sentences ranging from 20 years to life.

When they appealed the sentences, the judges imposed the death penalty on four more of the group: Scott Rush, 20, Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen, 23, Si Yi Chen, 21, and 19-year-old Matthew Norman.

Australia's Amnesty International parliamentary group said it would also appeal to Indonesia to spare their lives.

"I do think this far too excessive and it's time that there is a recognition by Indonesia that we are a firm friend of theirs but we don't expect our young people to receive the death penalty," said chairman Bruce Baird.

The Bali Nine are among several Australians who have faced drugs charges in Indonesia in recent years, including former beauty student Schapelle Corby, who was convicted of trafficking marijuana into Bali. She was jailed for 20 years. - AFP /dt