Executing the Australian smugglers was a step too far

Morning View
Morning View

The execution of two Australians in Indonesia for drug smuggling has caused dismay in Canberra.

It has withdrawn its ambassador from Jakarta over the killing by firing squad of Myuran Sukumaran, 33, and Andrew Chan, 31.

The Australian prime minister Tony Abbot, who is politically conservative and who advocates many traditional law and order values, has described the executions as “cruel and unnecessary” because the young citizens of his country had spent a decade in jail and had been rehabilitated.

There is no dispute that Chan and Sukumaran were the ringleaders in an extremely serious offence — smuggling more than 18lb (8.2kg) of heroin from Indonesia to Australia.

Such crimes are lucrative, and seek to profit from a trade that is deeply implicated in human misery, so Indonesia is justified in seeking to use tough penalties to deter smugglers.

However, there are serious questions over whether the death penalty is ever appropriate and, if so, whether it should be applied other than for instances of calculated murder.

Over the centuries and decades, there has been a steadily decreasing appetite in western democracies for executions. Even the United States, which still has the death penalty in some of its states, executes fewer people than it did half a century ago (35 last year compared to more than 50 in 1960).

In 1737, when this newspaper was launched, executions for serious theft were common. Our serialisation last year of the earliest surviving 1738-39 editions showed that mass hangings for robberies in Ulster were reported with alarming frequency. Such severity would now be regarded as barbaric.

But whatever our view on the death penalty, we can surely agree that the penalty for murder in Britain is now utterly inadequate. Actual time served for life sentences was until recently under 15 years on average. Now it is closer to 20 years.

A pre-meditated killer aged 30 will be free around age 50. As punishment for ending a human life, it is too little. The most heinous crimes deserve much longer spells in jail.