JAKARTA — As pastoral work goes, there must be few tasks as grueling, or as raw, as seeing a condemned man through his final hours before execution.
But when Father Charles Burrows, an Irish missionary in Indonesia, chatted and prayed with 42-year-old Brazilian Roderigo Gularte late into April 28, no matter what he counseled, the condemned man — a schizophrenic with bipolar disorder — seemingly understood nothing of what was about to happen.
“I was joking with him, saying that ‘I am 72; I will be up there with you soon enough,’” recalled the Dublin-born member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Father Burrows was speaking by telephone from Cilacap, on the southern coast of Java, the most populous of Indonesia’s 13,000 islands.
“Only when they bound him in chains did he ask, ‘Father, am I being executed?’” said the priest, who explained that Gularte heard voices telling him he would be okay.
But despite pleas from a Brazilian government already angered by Indonesia’s January execution of another Brazilian, Gularte and seven other men were tied to crosses in a dark field on Nusa Kambangan, also known as “Execution Island” or “Indonesia’s Alcatraz,” a short ferry ride from Cilacap.
The eight, reportedly led by Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, refused blindfolds — so they could look their executioners in the eye, according to the Australians’ pastors. The condemned then sung Amazing Grace together as flashlights shone on targets pinned to their hearts.
Then, shortly after midnight, early on April 29, a firing squad took aim.
“We were in a tent nearby, also singing hymns,” Father Burrows said. “Unlike previous executions, they died relatively quickly.”
The others executed were Nigerians Raheem Agbaje Salami, Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise, Martin Anderson and Okwuduli Oyatanze, along with Indonesian Zainal Abidin.
There was to be a ninth execution: Mary Jane Veloso, a 30-year-old Filipina housemaid, who was granted an 11th-hour reprieve after a woman — said to have duped Veloso into carrying heroin into Indonesia — turned herself into police in the Philippines, prompting frantic calls and texts from officials in Manila to their Indonesian counterparts. People in the Philippines described it as a miracle stay.
“Thanks be to God for that,” Father Burrows said of the remission, which is pending a further investigation in both Indonesia and the Philippines, while Veloso remains on death row. “She [Veloso] was just a poor person looking for work.”
Serge Atlaoui, a Frenchman previously on the list to be executed last week, was earlier given a two-week stay while a Jakarta court hears his challenge to Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s rejection of his clemency plea.
Last week’s executions were the second such round carried out in Indonesia this year. On Jan. 18, five accused drug traffickers — again all except one of whom were non-Indonesian — were shot by firing squad in the same field where Gularte died early on April 29. The same night, a Vietnamese accused, Tran Thi Bich Hanh, was executed on mainland Java.
Father Burrows was assigned as a counselor to Marco Archer Cardoso Moreira, 53, the Brazilian who was executed in the January round of shootings.
But the priest never got onto Nusa Kambangan to be with the condemned man for his final hours. “I rang them [Indonesian officials] about 20 times that day, but they didn’t call me back,” he recalled, describing the alleged bureaucratic fumble.
“Marco was crying alone in the cell, asking, ‘Where is my father; where is my father?’”
Indonesia’s 250 million people make it the world’s fourth-biggest country by population, after China, India and the United States. An electoral democracy, Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country, and its economy is the world’s 10th biggest, by some measurements. Twenty-four million Indonesians are Christian, and the country’s 8 million Catholics make it one of Asia’s biggest Catholic populations.
But the vast archipelago — stretched a distance equivalent to that between New York and Alaska — sometimes executes drug traffickers, and the government, led by recently elected populist President Widodo – citing an alleged national drug emergency – has pledged death to drug peddlers and vowed to clear out Indonesia’s death row.
Brazil withdrew its ambassador from Jakarta in January, while the execution of Chan and Sukumuran has prompted anger in Australia, Indonesia’s neighbor. The pair had been on death row since 2006, and their cases were regularly covered in the Australian press. Canberra’s official pleas for mercy went unheeded, however, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott said after the men were killed that he would withdraw Australia’s ambassador from Indonesia.
The executions went ahead despite claims by Chan and Sukumaran’s former lawyer that judges sought $130,000 to give the men a 20-year jail sentence rather than capital punishment. The pair were ringleaders of a group known as “the Bali 9,” who were arrested in 2005 for attempting to smuggle 18 pounds of heroin out of Indonesia to Australia – a sting carried out after the Australian police tipped off their Indonesian counterparts. In a related irony, Widodo, elected on an anti-corruption platform last year, ran into trouble in early 2015 after nominating a policeman accused of corruption to head Indonesia’s police force.
Official numbers are unclear, but around 50 people, most of them foreigners and including a British grandmother accused of trafficking heroin, remain on death row for drugs crimes in Indonesia.
Despite his age, Father Burrows said that he will stay in Cilacap, where he has been based for four decades, to continue to advocate for an end to the death penalty in Indonesia. He cited Gularte’s mental illness as one example of what’s wrong with capital punishment.
Said Father Burrows, “Rodrigo was schizophrenic, yet they went ahead anyway [with the execution], so we will continue with the case.”