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Battling the death penalty

Fr Tim Harris with Lee and Christine Rush, holding a picture of Scott Rush.

Fr Tim Harris with Lee and Christine Rush, holding a picture of Scott Rush.

CONVICTED drug courier Scott Rush’s parents’ struggle to save their son from death row is broadening public awareness of and opposition to capital punishment.

Lee and Christine Rush’s contacts with everyone from law society representatives to inter-faith gatherings have put a human face to the issue in the four years since son Scott, now 23, was arrested en route to Australia in April, 2005, for attempting to smuggle 1.3kg of heroin through Bali’s Denpasar airport.

Janet Neville, who is chief executive officer of LAWASIA, an association of peak legal bodies for 26 Asian Pacific countries, spoke of a “very moving” recent meeting she and Queensland Law Society (QLS) international relations section chair Russell Thurgood had with the couple.

“The Rushes’ statement was so powerful, it will soon be included in the QLS publication Proctor, and LAWASIA intends to publish it as well,” Ms Neville said.

Scott’s former parish priest Fr Tim Harris of Corinda-Graceville told The Catholic Leader Lee had spoken in April at Griffith University’s Multi-Faith Centre inter-faith dialogue on the death penalty.

“Lee asked those present – who were from various faiths – what the attitude of their particular faith to the death penalty was and it was very clear that many were moved and challenged by his question,” Fr Harris said.

Lee Rush said both he and his wife had “strongly opposed” capital punishment prior to their son’s arrest.

“We never believed in the death penalty,” he said.

“For a start neither of us believes it acts as a deterrent to criminal behaviour.
“Christine, who grew up in the Mitchell area, always remembered that the locality was connected to the last of Australia’s bushrangers, the Kenniff brothers, one of whom was hung in 1903 at Bogga Road.

“Queensland was also the first Australian state to end capital punishment in 1922.

“In my case, I always vividly remembered the details of Ronald Ryan’s execution in 1967 and later cases like that of Chambers and Barlow.

“And of course there was the tragic hanging of Van Nguyen in Singapore in 2005.”

The couple’s opposition moved into a more active phase when, as Lee puts it, “the topic landed on our doorstep when Scott finished up on death row in Bali’s Kerobokan prison”.

He was arrested with eight other Australians including Michael Czugaj, another former Corinda-Graceville parishioner.

Scott was a student at Christ the King Primary School, Graceville, and Michael was at St Joseph’s, Corinda.

Both received a life sentence for their crimes.

Scott’s Indonesian team appealed his sentence two-and-a-half years ago but his life sentence was then changed to one of death.

Ever since then, Lee and Christine’s campaign against the death penalty has been very much a public affair, very tough for a couple involved for many years in community projects.

Apart from speaking at such venues as the inter-faith gathering, Lee has for the past two years addressed the Good Friday Vigil at Graceville’s Christ the King Church.

As members of Aussies Against Capital Punishment they hand out anti-capital punishment literature in places such as Anzac Square, the West End markets and around the Treasury Casino.

“It’s a lot different though than preaching to the converted,” Lee said.

“For example, a fellow in his 60s came up and said if it was his son who’d been caught with drugs, he’d pull the trigger himself.

“However, people supporting the death penalty often change when they realise that we’re Scott’s parents.”

Ms Neville said it was this ability of the Rushes to put a “human face” to the issue which was changing people’s attitudes to capital punishment, including those in the legal community.

“There has been a tendency in the past for the legal community to put the debate on capital punishment in the too-hard basket,” she said.

“It’s been seen as a political issue to be dealt with by those countries where capital punishment is legal.

The attitude has been to not pass comment … but the mood is changing.
“It’s definitely being helped by people like the Rushes who are putting a human face to the issue.

“The legal fraternity is starting to see capital punishment as a moral and human rights issue which is a big change.”

Ms Neville said she was filled with admiration for the Rushes’ campaign against the death penalty.

“One of the things I admire about the Rushes is their focus on the big picture of the horror of the death penalty.

“It’s not just about their own problem – they could have just got stuck there, but now it’s happened they are taking time to talk to other people with an aim to changing their opinions.

“I’ve heard Lee speak in public and he does an amazing job given that he had no prior experience and was only drawn into all this by the circumstances of his son’s arrest.”

Ms Neville said the message she would like to convey to Lee and Christine Rush is “that their activities are bringing to light to a lot of influential people the horror of capital punishment and incarceration overseas”.

“LAWASIA got a strong motion carried against capital punishment at a meeting at end of October last year, though sadly Indonesia was one of countries missing from meeting,” Ms Neville said.

“And now the Rushes are helping to build an impetus against capital punishment.

“The work they are doing is definitely heightening the sensitivity of others to the issue.

“Even their brief meeting with LAWASIA and QLS, which was also part of a teleconference, will have an enormous impact.

“They are actually bringing something good out of their own heartbreaking story.”

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