Australia floats prisoner swop to save Indonesia pair facing execution

Australian opposition Leader Bill Shorten (centre) and Prime Minister Tony Abbott (right) attending a dawn candlelight vigil at Parliament House in Canberra on March 5, 2015. The vigil was held for Bali Nine ringleaders Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Ch
Australian opposition Leader Bill Shorten (centre) and Prime Minister Tony Abbott (right) attending a dawn candlelight vigil at Parliament House in Canberra on March 5, 2015. The vigil was held for Bali Nine ringleaders Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, who are to be executed in Indonesia. -- PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia on Thursday suggested a prisoner swop with Indonesia in an eleventh hour bid to save two drug smugglers facing execution, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott attended a candlelight vigil for the men.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of the so-called "Bali Nine" drug trafficking gang, could be killed within days after being moved on Wednesday to the Indonesian island where they are due to face a firing squad.

The authorities must give convicts 72 hours' notice before they are executed and in a last-ditch effort to save them Foreign Minister Julie Bishop proposed a prisoner swop.

She said she had spoken to her counterpart Retno Marsudi in what media reports said was "a very tense phone call", but gave no concrete details.

"We are seeking opportunities to explore every option that might be available to us, every avenue that might be available to save the lives of these two men," she told reporters.

"I'm waiting to hear back from the foreign minister. I spoke to her about it, and she undertook to provide that information to the President." She later told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation she hoped a prisoner swop could occur.

"I didn't go into any specific detail but I did note there were Australian prisoners in Jakarta and there were Indonesian prisoners in Australia and that we should explore some opportunity, a prison swop, a transfer, whether that could be done under Indonesian law," she said.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that any deal could involve three Indonesians in prison in Australia over their role in an infamous 1998 drug bust.

BIPARTISAN VIGIL

They were named as Kristito Mandagi, Saud Siregar and Ismunandar, the captain, chief officer and engineer respectively of a boat carrying 390kg of heroin that was seized near Port Macquarie, some 400km north of Sydney.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir cast doubt on whether a prisoner swap could happen.“Basically to our understanding, in our legal system, we do not have such a mechanism so I don’t know how this would pan out,” he told AFP.

Ms Bishop's comments followed an impromptu bipartisan candlelight vigil for the pair outside the country's Parliament in Canberra early on Thursday, also attended by Mr Abbott and opposition Labor leader Bill Shorten.

Mr Abbott, who on Wednesday expressed revulsion at the looming deaths, said he had requested a final telephone call with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to again push for the men to be spared.

"I can't guarantee that request will be met," he said.

"We respect Indonesia and we honour the friendship that we have with Indonesia, but we stand up for our values and we stand up for our citizens, and these are Australian citizens in extremis."

Canberra has made more than 20 representations to Indonesian officials since January regarding the pair but Mr Joko has been unswayed, insisting Indonesia was facing an "emergency" due to rising narcotics use and a tough line must be taken.

Chan and Sukumaran, sentenced to death in 2006 for trying to smuggle heroin out of Indonesia, recently lost their appeals for presidential clemency, typically the last chance to avoid the firing squad.

They are among several drug convicts, including foreigners from France, Brazil, the Philippines, Ghana and Nigeria, who have lost their clemency requests and are expected to be put to death at the same time soon.