Australia's past prime ministers plead for drug ring leaders on death row

Andrew Chan (left) and Myuran Sukumaran were sentenced to death in 2006 over their roles as ringleaders of a plot to smuggle heroin from Indonesia's Bali island to Australia. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Andrew Chan (left) and Myuran Sukumaran were sentenced to death in 2006 over their roles as ringleaders of a plot to smuggle heroin from Indonesia's Bali island to Australia. -- PHOTO: AFP 

SYDNEY (AFP) - All of Australia's surviving former prime ministers united on Tuesday in a last-ditch plea for Indonesia to spare the lives of two men on death row, as legal efforts to save them intensified.

Andrew Chan, 31, and Myuran Sukumaran, 33, were sentenced to death in 2006 over their roles as ringleaders of a plot to smuggle heroin from Indonesia's Bali island to Australia.

They are set to be transported to a high-security prison on the island of Nusakambangan this week ahead of their execution, but no date has yet been announced.

Several other foreigners on death row whose clemency appeals have also been rejected, including from Brazil, France, Ghana, Nigeria and the Philippines, are also expected to be transferred soon.

Australia has urged Indonesia - which faced a diplomatic outcry last month when it executed six drug offenders including five foreigners - not to proceed, particularly while last-ditch legal measures are being pursued.

"They committed a very serious crime but have demonstrated genuine rehabilitation," said John Howard, whose conservative government began efforts to save the pair from the firing squad during his term in office.

"Mercy being shown in such circumstances would not weaken the deterrent effect of Indonesia's strong anti-drugs laws."

From Malcolm Fraser, prime minister from 1975 to 1983, to his successors Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, all the former leaders provided their support for clemency in comments to The Australian newspaper.

"We are very much opposed to the death penalty in Australia," said Fraser.

Hawke said justice should be based on human understanding. "These two men made a mistake when they were young and foolish," he said.

"They have served their incarceration with model behaviour, and I therefore urge and plead that the government reconsider its decision to now take their lives."

Gillard added: "I personally would find it heartbreaking if such extraordinary efforts to become of good character were not met with an act of mercy, of recognition of change."

Rudd, who succeeded Howard as Australia's prime minister in 2007, said as a "deep, long-standing friend of Indonesia" he would "respectfully request an act of clemency." Keating also added his voice, saying the death penalty was a "monstrous act which provides no atonement for the crime" and in this case was out of proportion to the offences committed.

Current Prime Minister Tony Abbott has already spoken strongly against the planned executions, warning Jakarta that Canberra will make its displeasure felt if they go ahead.

"Like millions of Australians, I feel sick in the pit of my stomach when I think about what is quite possibly happening to these youngsters," he said on Monday.

Chan and Sukumaran's lawyers said their transfer to Nusakambangan should not occur while a legal case was ongoing, with a court date reportedly set for next week to look at claims that Indonesian President Joko Widodo did not follow the rules in rejecting their clemency bids.

"They cannot transfer, they cannot move Chan and Sukumaran, let alone kill them, while the legal process is going on," Todong Mulya Lubis told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Widodo has been a vocal supporter of capital punishment and has vowed a tough approach to ending what he has called Indonesia's "drug emergency".