TOM ALLARD -
January 23, 2010
Myuran Sukumaran, Matthew Norman and Andrew Chan speak about life in Bali's Kerobokan Jail. PHOTO: Jason Childs
MYURAN Sukumaran struggles for the right words. His hands begin moving awkwardly in front of his chest, fingers clenching and then relaxing, then flying in the air. "If I wasn't doing this, I don't know how I could do it in here … I'd just explode."
Sukumaran, one of three Australians on death row at Bali's Kerobokan prison for attempting to smuggle more than eight kilograms of heroin into Australia in 2005 - and the most famously media shy - is standing in a room full of computers in the prison's library.
Around him, a dozen or so Indonesian prisoners are busy learning the ins and outs of spreadsheets and word processing, a project the 28-year-old has driven from its inception along with Andrew Chan, his former schoolmate at Sydney's Homebush Boys High, who is also sentenced to die by firing squad.
In an exclusive interview with The Age, conducted inside Kerobokan, Chan and Sukumaran reveal their personal transformations within the walls of the prison, as well as their attempts to bring about reforms within the notorious jail.
"Before this, there was one time when I like … pwaar," says Sukumaran, letting out a guttural groan to express the anguish of a life now lived in the shadow of execution.
"Since I've had this stuff … I've calmed down," he says, waving his arm around the crowded computer room. "At the end of the day you feel like you have done something instead of just sitting around."
Speaking in a disarmingly soft, lilting voice - sometimes smiling and talking in Indonesian to the students - Sukumaran seems far removed from his media portrayal as the hard man of the heroin trafficking gang known as the Bali nine: a martial arts exponent and cold-blooded enforcer who organised the drug run.
Earlier, he was laughing at the jokes of Kerobokan's governor, Siswanto, as he addressed the prison's leadership group. Under a new structure being implemented by Siswanto, and modelled on the Balinese system of village government called banjar, Sukumaran has been appointed a kelian banjar - the head of a group of 20 or so prisoners, including those facing execution and housed in the prison's maximum security wing, known as the Tower.
His role includes assigning tasks to prisoners under him, liaising with the guards, resolving disputes and even overseeing modest penalties for those who transgress in their jobs cleaning, gardening and making small repairs in the prison.
This year, the fifth since the Bali nine were arrested following a tip-off from the Australian Federal Police, looms as a critical one for Sukumaran, Chan and the other Australian facing execution, Scott Rush.
All three will lodge their final appeals against the death sentence. Once the judicial reviews are over, their only avenue for clemency would be a pardon from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, something he has been thus far unprepared to do for others found guilty of trafficking heroin.
Rush, the young Brisbane man who was caught with heroin strapped to his body at Denpasar airport, will be the first to bring his case before Indonesia's Supreme Court and is considered to have the better prospects.
Chan and Sukumaran, unlike Rush, whose sentence was increased from life imprisonment to death following an appeal, were found at the initial February 2006 trial to have been the ringleaders of the group and given the death sentence.
Neither, under instructions from their lawyers, will discuss the details of what happened as they await the outcome of their latest appeals, but both are acknowledged by prison authorities to have turned their lives around and made a positive contribution to life inside Kerobokan.
"It's very helpful what they are doing for the other prisoners," says Anang Huzaini, Kerobokan's director of rehabilitation and education after a tour of the computer room.
"They can learn here, something that maybe they can't afford or simply have not time to do when they are outside."
Sukumaran comes across as sweet-natured and shy, blushing when he reveals "I never really had a girlfriend until I got in here" and talking about some relationship problems with a local girl, Gita, who used to visit him regularly.
He becomes animated, though, when talking about his reputation as a hard-living gangster. "I mean, they said I was some kind of karate expert. I studied jujitsu for three months. Hey, look at this, here's my white belt," he says. "They said I had a green Mercedes. It was a clapped-out car from 1980 … I was living in a rented townhouse."
His fuming hostility to the media during court appearances, including knocking over a reporter, did much to cement his image.
His manner, Sukumaran explains, reflected his anger that his family had been pursued relentlessly by the media. Incorrect reports that his mother, Raji, had helped falsify the passports of the Bali nine led to a lengthy investigation at the passport office where she worked and almost cost her a senior position there.
"That was really low. That really hurt," he says.
He recognises now that some bad advice from his former legal team also played its part and allowed the allegations to swirl unchallenged. "The lawyers told us to shut up, not say anything and we would get off in a few years."
Chan - with his broad Australian accent straight from the suburbs of Sydney - has a larrikin streak, quick to joke and turn the conversation away from himself and on to his passion for rugby league and the Penrith Panthers, as if sharing a beer at a pub.
"Do you know any rugby league teams that want to sponsor us?" he asks. "I love my league and that." A nuggety centre who occasionally ventured into the forwards, he describes his days playing park footy with relish. "I won't lie. I've been punched a few times. I'm smashed some heavy guys before and just laughed. You just get back up again."
As a youth, he was a regular churchgoer but strayed after leaving high school. Since entering prison, Chan has delved deeply into his Christianity.
He is studying to be a pastor with a church in Australia and taking a second course in theology. "You pray for something and it happens and you think it's a coincidence. You dig down further and it's God who's there."
He reveals, somewhat reluctantly, that he counsels inmates in Kerobokan and corresponds with other prisoners around the world.
"When you are a prisoner, when you are in here, you just feel like a piece of shit," he says. "When you show you care about someone, it can make a big difference …"
"If I see someone who's a bit down, I'll ask them what's wrong, listen to what they have to say. I try to pick them up. Let them know someone else cares."
Both Chan and Sukumaran credit Siswanto, the new governor, or kalapas, at Kerobokan, for giving them opportunities to do something other than sit in an awful suspended animation waiting for their fate to be finally decided.
Under the previous regime, Sukumaran had pushed unsuccessfully for an accountancy course to be set up, and wanted to study law.
The idea for a computer room had also been knocked back. Siswanto agreed in November, and 11 terminals - with their modems disabled to prevent access to the internet - were quickly bought, funded by a whip-around of Melbourne criminal lawyers organised by their barrister, Julian McMahon.
As well as teaching Indonesian inmates the basics of computing, they are used for a graphic design course that Sukumaran relishes as a twice-weekly creative outlet.
Chan and Sukumaran are also involved in a project started by Matthew Norman, another member of the Bali nine, to teach some of the Indonesian inmates English.
The death row inmates are now allowed to mix with the rest of the prison population more easily and, for the first time, can attend regular church services in English.
The recent release of a self-styled "shocking" account of life inside Kerobokan by Schapelle Corby's biographer, Kathryn Bonella, describing it as a hellhole of violence, drug-taking and deprivation, has infuriated Siswanto and exasperated the prisoners, who believe it is inaccurate and decidedly unhelpful to their causes.
According to Renae Lawrence - the only female member of the Bali nine, depicted in the book as enjoying regular orgies in her cell - it is "full of lies".
Certainly, many of the tales in the book date back years.
The 2007 arrest and imprisonment of Kerobokan's former head of security, Muhammad Sudrajat, for drugs and weapons offences began a long process of cleaning up the prison.
Kerobokan is a Third World prison and the solitary confinement cells out the back - small concrete boxes surrounded by razor wire and no bigger than a small toilet block - look grim.
Certainly, access to cash gets inmates better food and other privileges.
But prisoners are more or less left to their own devices during the day to roam the facility and its gardens and tennis and basketball courts.
Violence, say the inmates, is rare, and children are allowed inside to visit parents beyond the public areas. The cells are crowded but clean and filled with personal belongings, and compare favourably with the homes of tens of millions of poor Indonesians.
"Look, it's prison and some people play it up for sympathy," says Sukumaran. "It's not great being here, believe me. But we are lucky to be in this prison … it could be a lot worse."
It's a place neither he nor Chan expected to find himself in and, like many others who have been put on death row, they have used the opportunity to
re-evaluate their lives and make major changes.
How do they cope with the knowledge that their lives, so full of new promise, could be ended in a hail of gunfire?
"I don't let it get the better of me," says Chan. "I am making the most of it right now. Nothing can change that. Even if it stays the same, I'm not going to sulk. No, I'm not."
Sukumaran is similarly fatalistic, having experienced failed appeals before. But his tone is less defiant, and sadder.
"I always think maybe if I didn't get caught, something else could have happened. I had an uncle who just died of a heart attack, just like that … I'm just hoping I can get a life sentence. All the other ones, I didn't really expect a good result. But I'm hopeful this time."