As Indonesia prepares to execute up to 11 prisoners, including two Australians, a Brazilian and a Dutch national, amid international uproar, the spotlight has been thrown on the use of the death penalty in the country.
There are dozens more prisoners on death row and the government has declared there will be no mercy for those convicted of drug offences, meaning more executions are likely.
The Guardian has spoken to a police officer who has been part of the firing squad which operates on the prison island, Nusa Kambangan. His story is one that reveals the grim reality of Indonesia’s justice system but also the conflicting emotions of those responsible for upholding it.
Pulling the trigger is the easy part, the officer says as he contemplates the executions which are to come.
The worst part is the human touch, he says, the connection with those who are about to die. The executioner has to lace the prisoner’s limbs, hands and feet to a cross-shaped pole with thick rope. It is that final moment of brutal intimacy that haunts.
“The mental burden is heavier for the officers that are responsible for handling the prisoners rather than shooting them,” he says. “Because those officers are involved in picking them up, and tying their hands together, until they are gone.”
The officer – a young man who wanted to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of his role – is part of a wing of the Indonesian police corps known as the Mobile Brigade (“Brimob”).
The brigade carries out the executions on top of its regular duties. They are not full-time executioners but rather special police officers assigned to the job.
They are paid less than $100 on top of their existing salary to carry out their grim task.
The officer spoke exclusively to the Guardian, describing the bleakest moments of what he called “his job”, of being the last person to touch the prisoner just moments before they are “released from life”.
The act of execution happens in a jungle-skirted clearing on the prison island of Nusa Kambangan.
One team is assigned to escort and shackle the prisoners, a second team is the firing squad. This officer has been on both of those teams.
“We see the person close up, from when they are alive and talking, until they die,” he said. “We know it [that moment] precisely.”
Five Brimob officers are assigned to each prisoner, to escort them from the isolation cells in the middle of the night and accompany them to the clearing.
The officer says prisoners can “decide if they want to cover their face” before they are tied up to make sure their heart or the position of their body does not move.
Moments before, the prisoner has the option to seek religious counsel.
Using a thick rope known as “tali tambang” in Indonesian, the officer says he avoids speaking to the prisoners when he binds their hands behind their back and onto the poles, kneeling or standing as they wish, but that he treats the prisoners gently.
“I don’t make conversation with the prisoners. I treat them like they are a member of my own family,” he explains, “I say only, ‘I’m sorry, I am just doing the job.’
These may be the last steps that Andrew Chan, 31, and Myuran Sukumaran, 33, will follow, sentenced to death for their part in the Bali Nine trafficking ring.
Eight other death-row inmates, also dressed in white and blindfolded if they choose, will be lined up and shot simultaneously.
In the darkness of the night a torch will shine onto a circle, 10 centimetres in diameter, drawn over their hearts.
The firing squad, made up of 12 Brimob officers, will be five to 10 metres away and will shoot their M16s when given the order. Only some of the officers will have live rounds so they never know who fires the fatal shot.
Officers are chosen for the firing squad based on their shooting ability and mental and physical fitness.
But what emerged from the Guardian’s interview is a complicated portrait of a man who is both a pragmatic killer and reluctant executioner, who hopes he will be forgiven for what he has done.
Of being part of the firing squad, the officer describes the experience with detachment.
“We just come in, grab the weapon, shoot, and wait for the dying to finish. Once the ‘bam’ of the gun we wait 10 minutes, if the doctor pronounces him dead then we return, that’s about it.”
The weapons are placed in position for the officers before the execution.
Of the few executions the officer has been involved in, each has gone according to plan.
“It doesn’t take more than five minutes to be over,” he said.
After they are shot he says: “They go limp directly, because there is no life.”
A doctor examines the prisoners to determine whether they are dead. If the prisoner is not dead, a designated officer is told to shoot them at close range in the head.
The bodies are then transported to a place where they are bathed and placed in coffins and treated according to their respective religious tradition.
Describing the execution process the officer said he sees his role as simply doing his duty, “just carrying out orders based on law” regardless of whether he believes in the death penalty or not.
“I am bound by my oath as a soldier,” he said. “The prisoner violated the law and we are carrying out a command. We are just the executors. The question of whether it is sin or not is up to God.”
That responsibility, he said, also rests with his Brimob superiors.
“Whatever happened we don’t bring it up again because that is the experience of being in Brimob,” he says.
After performing the execution the officers undergo three days of classes that include spiritual guidance and psychological assistance.
And there’s a limit to the number of executions an officer can take.
“If we do the executions once or twice it is not a problem, but if we have to do it many times we will certainly be subject to psychological problems,” he said.And there’s a limit to the number of executions an officer can take.
Speaking recently to the Jakarta Post, the Brimob’s chief, Brigadier General Robby Kaligis – who was part of the firing squad in the 1980s – acknowledges the psychological strain on his officers.
“The shooting is the easiest part. It’s much harder to ensure that they are mentally prepared,” he says.
And of the dark memories, the Brimob chief tells the paper: “I don’t want to remember that part of my life. We need to focus on the present and the future.”
Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, has said he will not grant clemency to any inmate on death row for drug-related charges, meaning dozens more are in line for the firing squad.
But the Brimob officer who has already taken part in several executions says he is reluctant to be involved in any more.
“I hope that I won’t have to keep doing this indefinitely. There are some 50 people on death row so it could be my turn to execute again,” he says. “I’m not that happy doing it … If there are other soldiers, let them do it.”
One day he hopes he “will not remember these moments” and prays that like the people he has executed, he too will have some solace, in this life, or the next. “I hope the prisoners rest in peace,” he says. “I hope I do too.”