This was diplomacy at its rawest.

Behind closed doors and away from the glare of public declarations of friendship and goodwill, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd this week sat down with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to seek mercy for three Australians on Indonesia's death row.

Scott Rush, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, three of the nine Australians caught with heroin in Bali five years ago, have been sentenced to die by firing squad.

Their final appeals will be heard this month: if these fail, only an act of clemency by Yudhoyono will save their lives.

For the others, and for fellow Australian drug trafficker Schapelle Corby, the emerging new rapport between Canberra and Jakarta may also hold hope.

Rudd urged rapid progress in long-running negotiations for a prisoner transfer agreement that could allow them to serve their remaining sentences in Australian jails.

Perhaps significantly, no details of Yudhoyono's response have been leaked.

But the fact that the discussions were revealed at all has been seen as an indication of a new maturity in a relationship that has for decades been fraught with tensions, disputes and misunderstandings.

"In the course of the past couple of days we've had conversations which have ranged across capital punishment and the Bali Nine, the Balibo Five, people smuggling, and a range of other things which in the past if they had been discussed or been made public would have rocked the relationship," Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said.

"Now they are issues that we manage and they are treated very much as business as usual."

At its worst, business as usual could see Rush, Chan and Sukumaran taken from their cells before dawn, driven in a van to a remote beach and given the choice to die standing, sitting, or lying on the ground. If they wish, they could refuse a blindfold.

The 12 members of each firing squad, all of whom will have undergone psychological assessment for the task, will not know if their shots were fatal: half the rifles have live rounds, the others blanks. If any of three condemned men are not killed immediately, an officer will administer a coup de grace using a pistol to the head.

The inevitability of death for the three Australians if their appeals fail and clemency is refused was underscored by the executions of Nigerian heroin smugglers Samuel Iwachekwu Okeye and Hansen Anthoni Nwaoysa less than two years ago.

The same year, Imam Samudra and brothers Mukhlas and Amrozi died by firing squad for their roles in the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including three New Zealanders and 88 Australians.

The journey of the three Australians and the others who will spend all or most of the rest of their lives behind the grim razor-tipped walls of Bali's Karobokan jail is a cautionary tale of greed and stupidity.

The fatal consequences of drug smuggling in Indonesia are well known, and emphasised by prominent warnings at Bali's Ngura Rai International Airport.

That they planned and attempted to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin worth A$4 million ($5 million) as Corby was sentenced amid a blaze of international publicity to 20 years' jail for importing 4.2kg of cannabis on to the island almost beggars belief.

It began in 2004, when a small group based in Sydney, including Chan and Renae Lawrence, made an initial, successful, first run out of Bali. A second attempt in December failed, and in April 2005 the final operation crashed to disaster.

Lawrence, who claimed she was forced to join by threats of violence from Chan, worked at a Sydney catering contractor with Matthew Norman and Martin Stephens, two others enlisted as couriers. Chan was a supervisor there.

Fellow mules and schoolfriends Rush and Michael Czugaj were recruited at a Brisbane karaoke by an earlier fishing acquaintance, Tan Duc Thanh Nguyen. They were joined by Si Yi Chen and Sukumaran. In April 2005, all flew to Bali.

The Indonesian police were waiting, tipped off by the Australian Federal Police. Four were arrested at the airport with heroin strapped to their bodies, four with drugs at a Kuta Beach hotel, and Chan as he prepared to fly home.

Chan and Sukumaran were sentenced to death. Rush was first sentenced to life, but was later ordered to die on appeal by the prosecutors.

Chen, Nguyen and Matthews also received death on appeal, but their sentences were later reduced to life, also imposed on Czugaj and Stephens. Lawrence is serving 20 years.

Although there was little sympathy for their arrest and jailing, the fact that the Federal Police had warned the Indonesians - potentially invoking death penalties - rather than waiting to arrest them as they entered Australia caused a political storm.

The AFP and the Government were unrepentant.

But the much larger fallout surrounding Australia, the death penalty and relations with countries that impose it, continues.

All four drug executions in the last 30 years of Australians have been met with public outrage and government discomfort in Australia.

The nation has finally settled its own legal mind on the death penalty. Although it has not executed anyone since 1967 and has not had death on its sentencing books since 1985, a federal law preventing its reintroduction was not passed until this week.

Australia has for years officially opposed the use of the death penalty in other countries, ratifying United Nations covenants and resolutions calling for its prohibition.

As a matter of course, Canberra will appeal for clemency for any of its citizens facing execution.

But reality is more confused. Polls over the past decade have shown strong, if declining support for the death penalty at home, especially in cases of terrorism. Opinion is also divided on the fate of Australian drug traffickers abroad, with a Morgan poll last August reporting that 50 per cent believed that if sentenced to death, they should die.

The same sort of thinking afflicts politicians and officials. While a powerful advocate of an end to executions and a man who in Opposition could see no reason why Asian nations could not see the light, Rudd had no sympathy for the Bali bombers.

Australia has also been accused of hypocrisy by pleading for the lives of its own citizens while ignoring the hundreds of other nationals facing execution.

In Jakarta, Canberra has been working quietly to save Rush, Chan and Sukumaran. Its Embassy, officials and ministers have repeatedly put the case for clemency, including Rudd's first meeting with Yudhoyono in Bali in December 2007. If their appeals are refused, the argument will be made more forcibly.

"Once the appeal processes for Scott Rush and the other two Australians have been exhausted, once they've completed their domestic legal remedies, if it is the case that a death sentence still applies to them, then the Australian Government will pursue a plea of clemency on their behalf," Smith told Sky News.

To what effect remains in doubt. More than two years ago the Indonesian Constitutional Court upheld the death penalty for drug traffickers, rejecting a bid to repeal the 1997 Narcotics Law by Rush, Chan, Sukumaran and two Indonesians.

Yudhoyono has also said clearly that he will not grant clemency to traffickers.

And there are powerful forces at play. During his Australian visit this week Yudhoyono pointed to Jakarata's desire to significantly boost diplomatic, security, economic, cultural and person-to-person links with Australia.

But he also pointed to significant hurdles, including lingering misunderstandings and distrust in both countries.

For Australia, Indonesia is either stable, prosperous, democratic bulwark and partner, or massive headache. Canberra's economic and security issues are becoming increasingly enmeshed with those of its vast neighbour.

Yet the relationship remains fragile. Canberra will push as hard as it feels able to on behalf of its three citizens. But even with the apparent personal rapport between Yudhoyono and Rudd, the options - and hope - remain limited.

DRUGS, DEALING AND DEATH

Four Australians face execution abroad for drug offences.

* Schapelle Corby is serving 20 years.
* In Bali, Scott Rush, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sakumaran have been given the death penalty for heroin smuggling.
* Amphetamine smuggler Henry Chhin received a suspended death sentence in China in 2005.
* Four have been hanged in the past 30 years, all for drugs.
* Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers were executed in Singapore in 1986, Michael McAuliffe in 1993 in Malaysia, and Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore in 2005.