Nguyen lawyer describes painful journey
Reporter: Kerry O'Brien
KERRY O'BRIEN: Lex Lasry QC is one of Melbourne's most experienced criminal lawyers. No case has touched him like this one. He has spent countless hours with Van Nguyen over the course of this painful journey to the gallows and describes him as "a remarkable young man", a striking description for a convicted heroin smuggler. With his fellow Australian counsel, Julian McMahon, Lex Lasry had planned to steel himself to witness the execution as a last gesture to his client, but was thwarted in that bid. I spoke with Lex Lasry in Singapore by satellite a short time ago.

Lex Lasry, when we last spoke, you were still holding out a slender hope of a reprieve. When did you finally accept that hope was gone?

LEX LASRY QC: I think, Kerry, once it became obvious that the international court option was closed off completely and once the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting ended, with really nothing more than a passing discussion, it was obvious that that was the end of the legal manoeuvring and the end of our role and the end of us being able to do anything tangible for our client.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You must have asked yourself this many times but is there anything you can think of that might have been done that could have led to a different outcome in this case?

LEX LASRY: No, Kerry, Julian and I are satisfied that we've put every effort into every avenue that we could have explored in this case. I mean, we've put an enormous amount of effort into it. We've discussed it with our client along the way. I've now met him on 15 separate trips to Singapore. We've done it as a group and as a unit and I'm satisfied and I know he's satisfied that we've tried the very best that we could. I guess, with the benefit of hindsight, there may be some who might look and back and say, "we should have done this or that differently," but I'm satisfied we tried the very best we could.

KERRY O'BRIEN: It could be said that the level of support for Van Nguyen from within Australia has been surprising, given that he was attempting to smuggle heroin into this country. Perhaps it could also be said a surprising number of Australians appear to have supported his execution. Can you understand that sentiment?

LEX LASRY: I can't understand the second sentiment, because I think anyone who gives it a moment's thought realises the unfairness of him being executed and someone who says he should be executed is really saying 20 to 30 years for what he did is not enough. I assert that a large majority of people in Australia have supported his cause because they believe in the justice of his case, which is not to say he was undeserving of punishment, but I think Australians are appalled at the prospect that a young man of this age would die at the end of a rope without ever having been able to put a case on sentence to an independent judge. That's a simply demonstrably unfair concept.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The last time we spoke you talked of Van Nguyen's significant insight to his wrongdoing. How has he expressed that insight?

LEX LASRY: He's apologetic to everybody who's been affected by this and he's apologetic for his conduct in relation to his attempt to transport heroin from Cambodia to Australia. He has a very strong insight into all the things that all the wise commentators say about the harm that heroin does. He realises that. He's had plenty of time to think about it. And he's become, in my view, a beacon for young people who might be tempted to be exploited in this way to overcome both the temptation and to transform their lives. What he's done is demonstrate that you can transform your life in the most adverse of circumstances and he's done it quite magnificently.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You're in no doubt that he was exploited himself?

LEX LASRY: No doubt at all, no doubt at all. He's not without blame and he doesn't claim to be without blame. He made a choice, and he accepted, in effect he accepted the assignment and part of the motivation for that was financial gain. But you don't deserve to be executed for that kind of error of judgment. Every human being has made some kind of error of judgment in their life that they wish they hadn't made.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Not necessarily an error of judgment that could cost other lives?

LEX LASRY: No, that's true and he's conscious of that, he's well and truly aware of that. And as I say, given the chance to make a contribution beyond today he would have a significant contribution to make to people - to make people understand that risk and the harm that the drug does.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You've seen Van Nguyen twice in the last two days. Has his demeanour changed at all since he came to accept his fate?

LEX LASRY: Well, Kerry, I think he's accepted his fate for some time now and he's prepared himself for it and as I think I said to you last time, he's ready to die. Yesterday was perhaps more relaxed. Today I'd have to admit was a very emotional hour and a half but nonetheless, part of the emotion is because he is so courageous and he inspires all of us who've had anything to do with him and it's sad and emotional because it's such a waste that his life must now end.

KERRY O'BRIEN: How did you personally feel walking away from that prison?

LEX LASRY: It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my career. There's nothing that comes anywhere near it. I've been in emotional circumstances, like all lawyers, particularly criminal lawyers, and there are times when the emotions are very much at the limit but I've never been anywhere like I've been today and I never want to go there again, although I believe in the principles and, given the opportunity to be involved in other death penalty cases, I'd readily take it on. Apart from anything else, in his memory and inspired by his courage and it'd be great to be able to tell his story to other people.

KERRY O'BRIEN: It seems such a small concession from the Singapore Government that Van Nguyen's mother has been allowed to hold his hand the last time she will talk to him but not to hug. But I imagine even that contact must be enormously important to her?

LEX LASRY: I'm sure it is, Kerry, and it's better than nothing but as always is the case in the dealings with the Singapore Government, in this case, you simply get an answer without explanation and why she could not hold him is just beyond my comprehension and I'm sure it's beyond the comprehension of any parent. But there it is. They hold all the aces, they hold our client in their prison, they're going to execute him in the morning. And I suppose she has to be grateful for something, rather than nothing.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And his brother, his twin brother?

LEX LASRY: Well, obviously, this is a terrible situation in his life and he's quiet, reflective, obviously anxious. His journey in life from here on is going to be very difficult and, of course, like his mother, he'll have to carry this with him and no doubt from time to time be reminded of the fact that he figured at least in the motivation for what our client did. But it's very important that Khoa understand that he hasn't done this to his brother. The Singapore Government are doing this to his brother and he mustn't be allowed to feel any more guilt than is appropriate.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The Singapore Government has also rejected the application for you and fellow counsel Julian McMahon to actually attend the execution.


KERRY O'BRIEN: That may in the end be a blessing for you, I would think, given how the experience has affected other witnesses of other executions in the past?

LEX LASRY: Yes, that's true and I can honestly say, Kerry, I'm disappointed because I think other people who have witnessed this have done so without preparing themselves and I was convinced that Julian and I were ready for it. It was not going to be easy, by any means, but we'd thought very carefully about it and we thought about what we were going to see and I spoke to Brian Morley, who was present at Ronald Ryan's hanging, and got a pretty detailed account of what I could expect and I spoke to some other people whose opinion I really value and I think there are times in your life when you have to attempt to do things that are obviously the right thing and to me, it was the right thing to do because it would have brought comfort to Van. But it's not being permitted.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Can you understand why it's not being permitted?

LEX LASRY: No, again there's no reason given. I have a cynical lawyer's view and that is the last thing the Singapore Government would want would be someone who would be critical of hanging and mandatory death penalty to speak with the authority of having been present. And you speak to anyone who's been present during a hanging and they will tell you what a grotesque and inhuman process it is. Of course, if we had been able to be present we would speak with some authority. Although, I think having been in this case, I can do that anyway. I assume that figured in the reasoning but you don't get told the reason, you simply are told "no".

KERRY O'BRIEN: Can you think of anything good that's come from this?

LEX LASRY: Oh, yes, there are a lot of good things. Van's life, his transformation and his inspirational last year or two have just been fantastic and it's a great example to people of his age and in his situation. You'll hear more about Van Nguyen over the next weeks and months and I think there'll be a beneficial consequence for other people who face the mandatory death penalty in Singapore. I think, from my point of view, Kerry, the great benefit of this is that it's promoted such an important debate about where Australia should stand in this region on death penalties generally and particularly, on mandatory death penalties. I think it's really brought the argument to the fore and I think that's a great benefit.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Lex Lasry, thanks very much for talking to us.

LEX LASRY: Thank you, Kerry.

  • Nguyen Tuong Van Case Page & Petition

  • Nguyen lawyer blasts Singapore

    Lex Lasry QC. Photo: Angela Wylie
    Lawyers for condemned trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van today stepped up the pressure for the Melbourne man to be allowed to hug his mother before his Friday execution in Singapore.

    Lex Lasry, QC, also launched a blistering attack on city-state's use of the mandatory death penalty regime as he arrived for a final meeting with Nguyen.

    "It shouldn't require a legal loophole for Nguyen to allowed to touch his mother before he goes to the gallows," Mr Lasry said after flying in at 10.30pm local time, (1am AEDT).

    "It should simply be a matter of ordinary humanity that Singapore authorities surely must see that they have to be allowed to touch each other," he said.

    Amnesty vigil

    Amnesty International will hold a candlelight vigil for Nguyen in Melbourne's Federation Square tomorrow evening.

    A silent candlelit procession of Nguyen supporters and anti-death penalty campaigners will parade up St Kilda Road at 7.30pm from Federation Square to the Queen Victoria Gardens, opposite the National Gallery of Victoria.

    Speakers including Father Peter Hansen, who led a bilingual service for Nguyen at St Patrick's Cathedral earlier this month, will attend.

    Candlelight vigils will also take place in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, and smaller events in Rockhampton, Warwick and Newcastle.

    Nguyen's legal team  is waiting for a response to their requests.

    Barrister Julian McMahon said in Melbourne this morning that Ms Nguyen's right to hug and kiss her son had been denied for years.

    Contact denied

    "Whether or not Kim is granted the right to touch her son, we must not forget that firstly, she has been denied that right for three years and secondly, that every other mother and family member of every other person on death row in Singapore has been denied that right for many years as each one of their family members went to the gallows," he said.

    Mr McMahon flies to Singapore this afternoon to join Mr Lasry for a final meeting with their client.

    Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has also joined the call for Kim to have access to her son with a plea to both the Government in Singapore and the high commissioner in Australia.

    "Well that is a very significant issue. It's one that I have raised with the Singapore Government and I've made it clear to the high commissioner that he should tell the Singapore Government that I am personally very exercised about this," Mr Downer said yesterday.

    "So far the Singapore Government is considering this request. But I would have thought this was not an unreasonable thing for a mother to hug her son before the son in executed."

    Nguyen was arrested at Changi Airport in December 2002 carrying almost 400 grams of heroin.

    After all appeals for clemency from Canberra have failed, Nguyen faces the gallows at dawn on Friday.

    Nguyen, 25, has received a stream of visitors from close family and friends over the past two weeks. Those visits will continue today and tomorrow.

    But the condemned man and his mother, Kim Nguyen, and others have been separated by a thick pane of glass in the visiting room, allowing no physical contact.

    There has been no word yet from the Singapore authorities whether the restriction will be relaxed in the remaining time before the dawn hanging on Friday.

    Singapore unmoved

    As the furore over Nguyen's imminent hanging has mounted, Singapore ministers have stuck to the line that Nguyen's punishment fits his crime.

    They also argue that the use of mandatory capital punishment helps to keep illegal drugs out of the country.

    Mr Lasry held out little hope for his client, who appears to have reconciled himself to his imminent death.

    "It's got to be something out of the box, for sure, Mr Lasry said, when asked if it would take a miracle to save Nguyen now."

    One of Nguyen's friends who visited yesterday, Kelly Ng, said he was in good spirits and had even made plans for his funeral, in part to save his friends the trouble.

    "He just mentioned the songs he wants played (at the funeral)," said Ms Ng.

    - AAP with Dewi Cooke

  • Nguyen Tuong Van Case Page & Petition

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