Singapore hangs Australian drug smuggler

Updated: 2005-12-02 08:28

People hold a flower and weep for condemned drug smuggler Nguyen Tuong Van during a vigil in Sydney, Australia, Friday, Dec. 2, 2005, as they gather at the hour of his execution. [AP]
Singapore executed a 25-year-old Australian on Friday for drug trafficking, despite numerous appeals from the Australian government and hours after the condemned man had a "beautiful last visit" with his family.

Nguyen Tuong Van was hanged before dawn as a dozen friends and supporters, dressed in black, kept an overnight vigil outside the maximum-security prison. His twin brother, Nguyen Khoa, was dressed in white.

Vigils were also held in cities around Australia, with bells and gongs sounding 25 times at the hour of his execution.

"The sentence was carried out this morning at Changi Prison," the Home Affairs Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

Nguyen received a mandatory death sentence after he was caught in 2002 at Singapore's airport on his way home to Melbourne carrying about 14 ounces of heroin.

Australian Lawyer Julian McMahon, center, sits in a taxi with Kelly Ng, left, and Browyn Lew, right, friends of Nguyen Tuong Van, as they arrive at the Singapore Changi Prison to support Ngyuen just about an hour before his execution, Friday Dec. 2, 2005 in Singapore. [AP]

Singapore has executed more than 100 people for drug-related offenses since 1999, saying its tough laws and penalties are an effective deterrent against a crime that ruins lives. By contrast, Australia scrapped the death penalty in 1973 and hanged its last criminal in 1967.

While Australian leaders lashed out at the death sentence as "barbaric" and pleaded for clemency for Nguyen, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had ruled out a reprieve.

"We have stated our position clearly," Lee told reporters in Berlin on Thursday after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "The penalty is death."

Nguyen visited with his mother, Kim, twin brother, Nguyen Khoa, a friend and his lawyers Thursday afternoon.

  • Nguyen Tuong Van Case Page & Petition

  • The bell tolls for Nguyen
    The World Today - Friday, 2 December - Reporter: Shane McLeod

    ELEANOR HALL: 25 bells rang out in the Victorian capital this morning, signalling that half a world away a young Melbourne man had been executed for drug trafficking.

    Before dawn in Singapore this morning, Van Nguyen went to the gallows, as his twin brother kept up a vigil to the end at Singapore's Changi Prison.

    The convicted drug trafficker was hanged at 6am Singapore time, 9am Australian Eastern time, after the Singapore Government ruled out any last-minute reprieve.

    Correspondent Shane McLeod is outside Changi Prison in Singapore and he joins us now.

    Shane, it must have been terribly emotional there this morning. What can you tell us about the scene there at the prison?

    SHANE MCLEOD: Well, it was… it built up gradually. It started quite late last night, with… human rights started a type of vigil. They were bringing candles and cards to the front gate of the prison and leaving them there, every hour leading up to 6 o'clock this morning.

    Then just before 6 o'clock, Van Nguyen's brother Khoa arrived with a number of his friends, wanting to be as close as possible, I guess, during the last hour or so.

    They then emerged after the execution took place, and you could tell it was a very emotional thing for them, with Khoa Nguyen even hugging one of the prison officials, like a bear hug, as they left the visitors centre here at Changi.

    It was obviously for the family, and also for I think a lot of the supporters and the activists here a very, very emotional morning.

    ELEANOR HALL: Now, what's next for Van Nguyen's family?

    SHANE MCLEOD: Well, we understand that they're likely to attend a church service today, a mass, some time this afternoon. There's also the issue of taking care of his body, which has to be removed from the prison today.

    We understand funeral directors will arrive shortly to take delivery of Van Nguyen's body and to prepare him for the return to Australia. And that's something that is required to be done after there's official confirmation of his identity by officials from the Australian High Commission.

    ELEANOR HALL: Now of course it would have been an emotional time for the lawyers as well. Did they have anything to say this morning?

    SHANE MCLEOD: Yeah. Julian McMahon arrived this morning with Khoa Nguyen, and he went in to, I guess, something of a media pack. When they arrived there was quite a large media presence here that surrounded them, and as they went into the jail Mr McMahon asked the media just to give some space so that they could get as close to the wall of the jail as they could.

    Here's some of what he had to say:

    JULIAN MCMAHON: You are doing your job, which I perfectly understand. This is not a job for these young people, this is their dear friend, and they want to be as close to him as they can to support him as he dies.

    I'd ask that you please give them the chance to do that with dignity, which we should all expect of each other in what is a most horrendous situation.

    REPORTER: Where is his mother and how is she?

    JULIAN MCMAHON: His mother is in a chapel with most of the other familiar faces that you know, and friends and supporters. She is obviously incredibly upset, but she is also more prepared now than she has been at any time previously.

    REPORTER: Will she leave the country today?


    REPORTER: Over the weekend?


    REPORTER: How is the brother?

    JULIAN MCMAHON: He's the same.

    ELEANOR HALL: And that's Julian McMahon, one of Van Nguyen's lawyers.

    Now, Shane, there's a bit of noise in the background there. What's happening at the prison now?

    SHANE MCLEOD: Well, it's essentially business as usual today. The Link Centre, as it's known, the visitors building here at Changi Prison, is open, and people are coming in to visit their own family and friends who are here in the prison.

    And I guess for a prison that executes someone roughly every two weeks, it is a matter of just getting back to normal.

    Speaking to some of the human rights activists today, they want to keep the pressure on, obviously over the death penalty. One of them is Samy Sinapan, who I spoke to earlier, and he told me a little about their continuing campaign.

    SAMY SINAPAN: It's quite painful but we have to be here to express our solidarity. Even without being physically present, even if you are at home alone, thinking about him or anyone on death row, and yet you can't save them… it's very difficult and painful.

    I mean, you know it's planned killing, state-sanctioned killing, and it's planned, and yet you can't save this guy, and you think it is wrong to kill this guy for just mere possession.

    So it is difficult, but coming to terms means we don't want this repeated for too long, it's enough. I think they have already killed 851 people or more. And I think for us that is the motivation to continue to put a full stop to it, especially the mandatory death penalty.

    SHANE MCLEOD: What's going to happen next then? How will you continue to keep pressure on the Government over this?

    SAMY SINAPAN: For us, I think the one good thing is the group that we established - Think Centre - in 2001, was the only human rights activist group at that time. Right now there are other civil society individuals, from professionals and individuals who are concerned about the death penalty, coming forward to form their own small little groups to discuss this issue.

    For example, tomorrow we have a forum, and we are going to discuss whether mandatory death penalty issues should be brought forward as an election, during the election campaign. And that is going to be soon, the election, either this year or next year.

    So we feel that keeping the pressure on the Government also means highlighting to the public and making the public express its opinion. Silence doesn't mean agreement, but here the Government seems to take the point that silence means agreement.

    We have to make the people express their view, and freedom of expression is a very difficult issue here, because there are so many obstacles to it. Freedom to speak, freedom to assemble, freedom to associate - all are limited here. We want to open the ground.

    SHANE MCLEOD: What about the international attention? There's obviously been a lot of focus on this case, but do you expect that will continue now?

    SAMMY SINAPAN: We hope it does, because otherwise I think that the attention of the death penalty on Van's case will just disappear after two weeks.

    We hope by focusing on the election, the election would… taking up the issue of death penalty, mandatory death penalty, would be a good occasion for the international press to keep reporting on it.

    On the other hand, I think with two Africans on death penalty right now, one South African and one Nigerian, for a similar offence of possessing drugs in the airport, would also mean the international press could report on those cases.

    ELEANOR HALL: And that's the prominent human rights activist and Singapore's Samy Sinapan, who was speaking to our correspondent Shane McLeod outside the prison in Singapore.

  • Nguyen Tuong Van Case Page & Petition

  • Family mourns Nguyen at Singapore service

    Mourning: Vigils have been held around Australia to protest against the death penalty. (Reuters)
    The family of executed Melbourne man Van Nguyen has held a memorial service at a church in Singapore.

    Nguyen, 25, was hanged this morning in Changi Prison after being convicted of trying to smuggle heroin through Changi Airport.

    It is not known who the executioner was - the chief executioner, Darshan Singh, says he was not enlisted for the task.

    Since early this morning, Nguyen's mother has been supported by friends and relatives at a church chapel not far from the jail.

    Her son Khoa has joined her this afternoon for a memorial service.

    Both are expected to leave Singapore tomorrow night, accompanying Nguyen's body back to Australia.


    There were vigils for Nguyen around the country today, including one at the 25-year-old's former school.

    Hundreds of mourners crowded into St Ignatius Church in Melbourne and, as the young man was led to the gallows, a bell sounded for every year of his life.

    In Sydney, more than 500 people attended vigil in Martin Place.

    A minute of silence was held and a Vietnamese gong was chimed for each year of Nguyen's life.

    In Canberra, a vigil was held at the Singapore High Commission.

    People also attended church services in Brisbane, Hobart, Darwin and Perth.

    Public funeral

    Next Wednesday, people can join the Nguyen family at a service at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne at 11:00am AEDT.

    The service will be read in both Vietnamese and English.

    Father Peter Hansen, who will conduct next the service, says he is expecting a big crowd to attend.

    "To remember the fact that he was a person who sought to atone for his wrongdoing, he sought the forgiveness of the community, he sought to turn his life around, he sought to become a person of usefulness, but unfortunately the actions of the Singapore Government have prevented him from fulfilling those desires," he said.

    Father Hansen says he is proud of the compassion Australians have shown.

    "People realise that what's happed to Van is something that no civilised society should ever be prepared to tolerate," he said.

    Prayers, courage mark Nguyen's end
    December 2, 2005

    A "courageous" Nguyen Tuong Van prayed in the last minutes of his life and embraced a Singapore prison official as he was led to the gallows, it has emerged.

    The 25-year-old drug trafficker was hanged in Changi Prison at dawn as friends and supporters gathered nearby and at emotional prayer and protest vigils in Australia.

    Nguyen's family claimed his body within hours, and it will be flown home on Saturday night for a funeral service in Melbourne he helped plan himself.

    His twin brother Khoa and several of his friends were as close as possible when he died, gathering in a nearby jail building as a hangman slipped a noose over the condemned man's head at 6am local time (9am AEDT).

    Nguyen's mother Kim, who was able to touch her son's face and hair during her last visit on Thursday, grieved with friends and relatives at a nearby chapel as the hour of execution passed.

    Inside, on death row, Nguyen was joined in prayer by two pastoral workers in the last minutes of his life, who later described him as calm and inspiring to the end.

    "I know that he died the courageous death that he planned for himself and died as an optimistic young man, making us all extremely proud of him," lawyer Lex Lasry told ABC radio.

    "I gather he embraced the superintendent as he walked to the point where he was executed and that's exactly the sort of thing I would expect from him," he told the Nine Network.

    Mr Lasry says he feels like he's lost a son.

    "We have a client who became a friend and, at the end, he felt more like a son," he told ABC radio.

    "And it's been terrible emotionally and ... today's probably certainly been the most emotional day of my professional life and indeed a day in my life that, I think, doesn't compare with any other."

    The hours before the hanging were torture for Nguyen's mother Kim.

    Later, when told how he died, "she was distraught to start with and then some time after six (o'clock) calm started to settle over her", said Lasry.

    Khoa, whose legal debts Nguyen said he had been trying to repay by smuggling heroin, was distressed, said Lasry.

    "He's in a most tragic situation. But hopefully today for him is the start of ... the rest of his life."

    In Australia, tears were shed at prayer vigils timed to coincide with the hanging at 9am (AEDT), and bells tolled 25 times - one for each year of Nguyen's life.

    A little over an hour later Singapore took the unusual step of issuing a statement confirming the Melbourne man's death.

    It point out that his crime was to smuggle enough heroin to supply 26,000 hits to addicts.

    Around the same time, Khoa and Nguyen's distraught-looking friends emerged from their prison vigil, the dead man's twin brother embracing a prison official before leaving in a taxi.

    Four hours after his execution, Nguyen's body was claimed by his family, finally escaping Changi Prison in a white funeral director's van.

    They later attended a private mass at Singapore's Good Shepherd Convent.

    Accompanied by his mother, brother and lawyers, Nguyen's body will be flown home aboard a commercial flight leaving Singapore Saturday night for Melbourne.

    Thousands are set to attend his funeral at Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral next Wednesday, to be conducted by family friend, Father Peter Hansen.

    "It's an enormous privilege to be given the chance to commend Van to God," he said.

    Nguyen became a devout Catholic as he languished on death row following his arrest in 2002.

    He told friends Kelly Ng and Bronwyn Lew this week the songs he wanted played at his funeral.

    It was also Nguyen's wish that the service be partly conducted in his mother's native language - Vietnamese - and partly in English, said Father Hansen.

    Nguyen's death stirred opposition to the death penalty in Singapore, with members of the newly-formed Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Committee lighting candles outside the prison gates.

    Lasry was optimistic the case might bring about change in Singapore, but he did not urge Australians to boycott Singapore goods, saying Nguyen himself wanted people to move on.

    "His overwhelming emotion to us yesterday was one of concern that he wasn't doing harm and believe it or not ... that included a concern that he wasn't doing harm here in Singapore," Lasry said.

    Nguyen was the first Australian to be executed since Michael McAuliffe in Malaysia in 1993.

    It later emerged that Singapore's veteran chief executioner, Darshan Singh, was not called on to hang Nguyen.

    Hundreds light a candle for Nguyen
    Thursday, 1 December 2005.

    Protests: Earlier displays of support for Nguyen included vigils and installations. ABC TV

    Hundreds of people are attending vigils around Australia for condemned drug courier Van Nguyen.

    Nguyen is to be hanged in Singapore tomorrow morning.

    In Victoria, around 300 people lit candles at Federation Square before walking in silence to the Queen Victoria Gardens.

    Speeches and prayers were then followed by the lighting of more candles to float in the garden's pond.

    Craigieburn Catholic priest Peter Hansen says it has been important for many people to show their sympathy.

    "The pain tomorrow will only just be a beginning," Father Hansen said.

    Participants say they cannot believe the penalty will be carried out.

    "As the moment approaches it just seems more and more horrific," one vigil participant said.

    Another said: "I just can't believe it's going to happen in this day and age."

    Hundreds of people gathered at Martin Place in Sydney have been addressed by Tim Goodwin from Amnesty International.

    Mr Goodwin says the death penalty is unacceptable

    "Tonight we stand together in solidarity with Kim Nguyen, [Van's] brother and his friends and with the families of the other victims of this horrendous penalty around the world," he said.

    In Queensland, protesters have gathered in Brisbane's CBD.

    The candlelight vigil in the Queen Street Mall has attracted more than 100 people.

    They have heard speakers condemn the Singapore Government for allowing the execution to go ahead.

    David Copeland from Amnesty International says there has been strong public support for its campaign to save the Australian's life.

    Mr Copeland says there is still hope.

    "We're making a last appeal to the Singaporean Government to grant to Van Nguyen, this young Australian who faces execution tomorrow morning - it is not too late, while there is life there is hope," he said.

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