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Death sentences anger Australia

Published: 4:44PM Thursday September 07, 2006 Source: AAP

An Indonesian court decision to sentence four young Australians to death for heroin smuggling, overturning their earlier jail terms, has sparked an angry political reaction in Australia.

"Judicial murder is what the Indonesian authorities have in mind here. It is a repugnant and barbaric practice," Green Senator Bob Brown said in Canberra.

Prime Minister John Howard has said he would seek clemency for the four sentenced to death on Wednesday after they lost appeals against lengthy jail terms.

"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," Howard said on Wednesday night after news of the death sentences reached Australia.

A total of six Australians, part of the so-called "Bali Nine", are now on death row on the resort island after trying to take more than 8.2 kg (18 lb) of heroin from Bali into Australia.

A group of Australian politicians, members of human rights group Amnesty International, said they would protest to the Indonesian government at the latest death sentences.

"We should not sit back and say this is their laws and they can do what they want," said government MP Bruce Baird.

"It's our young people that they are condemning to death and that is totally unacceptable," Baird told reporters.

"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."

Australia's sensitive relationship with its giant northern neighbour has only just recovered from a deep rift open up when Canberra granted asylum in March to a group of boatpeople from Indonesia's restive eastern Papua province.

Jakarta charged Canberra with supporting Papua's secessionist claims and temporarily withdrew its ambassador.

Justice Minister Chris Ellison said bilateral ties would weather any storm over the death sentences. "It is a very strong relationship. I think certainly it will remain so," he said.

News of the death sentences sparked comparisons with how Jakarta has dealt with those convicted of involvement in the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.

Brown said the death sentences showed a double standard in the Indonesian legal system, with Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir serving only 26 months for conspiracy in the Bali bombings.

"There's an incredible double standard in justice. It's injustice, not justice," Brown told reporters. "To look at the way the Bali bombers are being treated as against the Australians charged with drug crimes shows a system that is unfair."

But not all the criticism of double standards was directed at Indonesia, with calls for Australia to universally oppose the death penalty, not just when it involved its citizens.

Howard has said he would not object to the death penalty for Bali bombers. Three of these, Amrozi, Ali Gufron, and Imam Samudra, are on death row and due to be executed this month.

"Diplomacy seems to be all that stands between most of the "Bali Nine" and the firing squad. However, Australia's persuasiveness as an advocate has been compromised by its weakness and inconsistency as an opponent of capital punishment," said an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald.

"Australia must actively oppose capital punishment generally, not just when Australians are involved."