By Kanupriya Kapoor
CILACAP, Indonesia (Reuters) - An Indonesian firing squad executed eight drug traffickers, including seven foreigners, in the early hours of Wednesday, sparking condemnation from Australia and Brazil who had made final, desperate pleas to save their nationals.
The mass execution cements the hard line on enforcing the death penalty adopted by Indonesian President Joko Widodo as part of his war on drugs, an approach criticized by the United Nations as applying double-standards.
Four Nigerians, two Australians, a Brazilian and an Indonesian were executed in a forest clearing near the prison, as family members held a candle-light vigil within earshot of the firing range.
"All eight were executed at the same second at 0035 hours," Indonesian Attorney General H.M. Prasetyo told reporters in Calicap, off the prison island of Nusakambangan in Central Java.
A ninth prisoner from the Philippines was spared at the last minute, apparently as part of a deal between Jakarta and Manila to seek more information and go after drug syndicates operating in the region.
Both Australia and Brazil oppose capital punishment and have railed against Widodo's move to step up the pace of executions, after a five-year moratorium, since coming to office last July.
Australia said it was recalling its ambassador to Jakarta, a step already taken by Brazil over the execution of another prisoner in January. The south American country is now considering what further action it will take.
Indonesia shrugged off Australia's diplomatic response. "It is just for a while, a month or two, to signify protest," Vice President Jusuf Kalla told reporters.
Australia has deep commercial and political ties with its big neighbor, but has said the executions would not impact trade relations. Brazil, too, will be wary of jeopardizing valuable defense contracts.
Widodo's steadfastness on the executions, which has strong public support at home, stands in contrast to a series of policy flip-flops since he took office six months ago. Palace insiders and government officials portray him as sometimes out of his depth and struggling to get around entrenched vested interests.
Charlie Burrows, religious counselor to the Brazilian convict who was with the prisoners before their execution, said all eight had refused blindfolds before they were shot.
Their families lit candles as they watched the procession of cars taking the prisoners to the execution site, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, adding many became hysterical when gunshots rang out a short time later.
"The good thing is all prisoners were executed together while praying and singing. Before that they hugged each other, saying goodbye," Christina Widiantarti, a lawyer for the Brazilian convict and a witness to the execution, said.
Rupert Colville, U.N. human rights spokesman in Geneva, criticized Jakarta's use of the death penalty.
"Indonesia appeals for clemency when its own nationals face execution in other countries, so it is incomprehensible why it absolutely refuses to grant clemency for lesser crimes on its own territory," he said.
MILITARY DEAL AT RISK
Recalling an ambassador is a step rarely taken by Australia, and never previously taken over a prisoner execution.
"We respect Indonesia's sovereignty but we do deplore what's been done and this cannot be simply business as usual," Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Canberra.
"I want to stress that this is a very important relationship between Australia and Indonesia but it has suffered as a result of what's been done over the last few hours."
But he cautioned against a trade or tourism backlash.
While critical, Brazil, which has a $5 billion trade surplus with Southeast Asia's biggest economy, will also be wary of losing a major military export deal to Indonesia over the executions row.
The Brazilian government said in a statement it was shocked by the news, which marked the second execution of a Brazilian in Indonesia in three months despite President Dilma Rousseff’s personal humanitarian appeals.
Brazil’s foreign ministry said it was evaluating ties with Indonesia before deciding what action to take.
Indonesia said earlier it was reviewing the purchase of a second batch of Brazil-made Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano aircraft and an order for multiple rocket launch systems after Brazil refused to allow Indonesia's new ambassador to take part in a credentials ceremony.
In Manila, Jose Rene Almendras, secretary to the Philippine cabinet, told reporters that the case against the Filipina took a dramatic turn just hours before her scheduled execution when a woman involved in the affair went to police in the Philippines.
Almendras said the two countries had a common interest in going after the bigger syndicates.
"I think both sides, both legal sides, have decided let's pursue this legal angle of not just hitting a mere courier and trying to go to the bigger root of the problem," he said.
(Additional reporting by Randy Fabi, Fergus Jensen and Gayatri Suroyo in JAKARTA, Jane Wardell and Matt Siegel in SYDNEY, Anthony Boadle in BRASILIA and Rosemarie Francisco in MANILA; Writing by John Chalmers and Matt Siegel; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)