by DAVID AXE
Indonesia’s motley squadron of Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets has a strange new mission—riding shotgun beside a transport plane hauling two Australian prisoners to an island prison where they could face a firing squad for smuggling drugs.
“The Indonesian military commander has given the order to assist the relocation of the two death defendants,” Maj. Gen. Torry Djohar said on Feb. 22. “A squadron of Sukhoi jet fighters will be prepared to escort the Hercules aircraft that will be used to transport the defendants. We will also deploy ocean patrol and land forces.”
The Indonesian air force operates five early-model Sukhoi Su-27s and 11 newer Su-30s. Normally based at Sultan Hasanuddin International Airport on Sulawesi Island in the middle of the archipelago nation, the Sukhois will accompany a C-130 carrying prisoners Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan from Bali—in the country’s south—to the remote Nusakambangan Island farther west as early as Feb. 27.
Nusakambangan is a wildlife refuge that also the location of Indonesia’s most notorious prisons, housing some 2,000 inmates including terrorists and drug traffickers.
“Death row inmates are routinely whisked into the dense forest at midnight, blindfolded, asked to stand, sit or kneel and simultaneously fired at by 12 executioners aiming for their chests,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
“The firing squad is drawn from Indonesia’s paramilitary forces and if the prisoner is still breathing, the commander will shoot him or her point-blank in the head.”
Sukumaran, 33, and Chan, 31, are two members of the “Bali Nine” group of smugglers. An Indonesian court sentenced the two to death in 2005 for plotting to smuggle heroin out of Indonesia. Australian authorities have tried for years to convince Jakarta to show mercy on the men.
Indonesia rebuffed all attempts. “The first thing I need to say firmly is that there shouldn’t be any intervention towards the death penalty because it is our sovereign right to exercise our law,” Indonesian president Joko Widodo said.
The heavy air patrols around Sukumaran and Chan are perhaps a political statement more than a practical security measure. The Sukhois orbited over Bali as a judge in Jakarta rejected a plea by the prisoners on Feb. 17.
That said, Indonesia’s penal system is notoriously insecure. Dozens of prisoners have escaped Nusakambangan by boat. Two years ago, Indonesian army special forces troops broke into a Java prison and shot dead four men being detained in connection to the murder of a soldier. The U.N. has been pushing Jakarta to reform its notoriously cruel and chaotic justice system.
In related news, Indonesia is upgrading an air base on the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea so it can accommodate the Su-27s and Su-30s—plus Su-35s Jakarta plans to buy. The Natuna Islands base puts the Sukhois in a position to contest China’s territorial claims in the region.