Nguyen Tuong Van case File
Nguyen death penalty case not closed: Lawyers
Reporter: Catherine McGrath

ELEANOR HALL: We go first today to the fate of the Australian man on death row in Singapore. Lawyers for Van Nguyen have said this morning that they do not see the statement from the Singapore High Commission this morning as an indication that the case is closed.

Singapore High Commissioner to Australia, Joseph Koh, today issued a statement saying he understands that the family of Mr Nguyen find the death penalty decision hard to accept, but that Singapore's strict anti-drug laws are well-known, and send a clear message to drug syndicates.

The Australian Government this week indicated it intends to appeal again to Singapore's Foreign Minister, but both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have said they believe the case has little hope.

To discuss the latest developments, we’re joined in our Canberra studio by Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath.

So, Catherine, how important is this statement from the Singapore High Commission?

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, Eleanor, I think it’s important in the sense that there has been no public comment at all from the Government of Singapore since the decision was handed down on Friday to reject the clemency appeal.

Now, this statement comes from the Singapore High Commissioner here as you said, Joseph Koh, but it will have been thoroughly checked, thoroughly endorsed and effectively written by the Singapore Government.

So every word that is being issued here in Australia is issued with a direct political message too. And the word coming out of this in this statement sends a very clear message that the case has been considered, and was carefully considered, but that the result is, in effect, the result is in place.

Now, it doesn’t…



ELEANOR HALL: Is it a message then to the leaders in our country that there’s not much point in them making extra appeals?

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, certainly there’s no indication here, there’s no comment on an appeal.

But let me read to you some of the words in the statement.

It says, "Our strict," the Singaporeans are saying, "Our strict anti-drug laws send a clear message to drug syndicates."

It also says that Mr Nguyen was given a fair hearing throughout the legal process and his appeal for clemency was carefully considered.

The statement goes on to say, the High Commissioner here is saying, "I understand this decision is difficult for the family to accept, but the stand the Government has taken is consistent with the firm position that Singapore has taken in similar cases."

So, Eleanor, it does not reflect on the fact that there are some papers, some appeals still going ahead by the Australian Government.

But certainly, the message on face value is: Singapore has looked at this, given it careful consideration and the decision is there.

ELEANOR HALL: So what has the response been then from the lawyers for Van Nguyen?

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, the lawyers this morning, Eleanor, have been carefully considering this statement and they’re, they’re being reasonably optimistic. They’re saying this is just a statement of the current facts as we know them. And they’re still going ahead with their appeals.

Now they’re, as we’ve heard from them in the media in the last few days, they’re making definite statements on the value of Mr Nguyen as a possible witness in cases here in Australia that could give vital evidence, they say, in prosecuting drug syndicates in this country. And also, they’re saying, the fact that he is remorseful, the fact that he can undergo rehabilitation and has a completely clean record.

Now, I spoke to one of the lawyers this morning, and we’ll hear now from Mr Nguyen’s lawyer, Melbourne lawyer Julian McMahon.

JULIAN MCMAHON: The statement is a response from the Singapore High Commission to all the media inquiries that, no doubt, he’s been getting, and it’s a general response just restating the Government position, but it doesn’t deal with the issues that we’ve been raising or the issues that have been raised on our behalf by the Government over the last year or so.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: So does that give you any reason for hope that those issues will still be considered?

JULIAN MCMAHON: Oh yes, I’m sure that they will be.

It’s been well publicised through the media that Mr Downer is intending to go back to the Singapore Government, and I don’t see that this media statement by the Singapore High Commission is an attempt to pre-empt that at all. It’s just stating the Government’s position.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Do you think that the Government response is going to have any effect, given that the previous attempts have failed?

JULIAN MCMAHON: Well, obviously I’m hopeful that it will. We’ve now raised the profile of what we consider some of the key factors, and I think that everyone involved will have another closer look.

I mean, the Singapore Cabinet is renowned for the intelligence of its members, and when its closest regional friend urges it to reconsider a matter based in policy, and in law, and with a background of close friendship, I’d have no doubt that they would pay close attention to that and reconsider the matter.

ELEANOR HALL: That’s the lawyer for Van Nguyen, Julian McMahon.

Now, Catherine, do we know whether, how, do we know yet whether Van Nguyen himself has responded to this statement, whether he’s even seen the statement from the High Commission?

CATHERINE MCGRATH: No, well he wouldn’t have seen it yet, Eleanor, as we’ve said, the lawyers have just been studying it. It will be passed onto him in the normal, normal information transfer that goes on.

His lawyers were saying this morning, actually, that he is holding up very well and, but he is hopeful himself, Mr Nguyen is hopeful himself that there might be a positive response.

Now, we heard there Julian McMahon emphasising the Australia and Singapore relationship, emphasising that the lawyers want the Australian Government, as Singapore’s closest non-ASEAN friend in this region, to make a strong statement to say to Singapore that it’s important for the Australian relationship that Australia feels very strongly about this.

Now, it’s not clear at all that Australia will be taking that line. Clearly, the lawyers feel that’s a valuable line.

What the Australian Government has said is they will put in another appeal, they will speak to George Yeo, the Foreign Minister, and, but publicly, as you know, our Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, and the Prime Minister, John Howard, have said that they don’t feel there’s a lot of hope in this case.

Remember, Singapore has had this position for a very long time. It feels the importance of sending the message of tough on drugs is an important one, a consistent one.

So politically, Singapore doesn’t want to be seen to be changing its rule for an Australian when it hasn’t been changing its rule for Singaporeans or other people from other ASEAN countries, who might be in Singapore.

So I think it’s a very, very hard ask and the timeframe now is getting quite close. Singapore does its hangings on Fridays. It’s a ritualistic thing there that that’s when they happen.

There’s no indication yet of exactly when Van Nguyen’s case would be coming forward. His lawyers were originally told, after the clemency appeal was rejected on Friday, that it could be four to six weeks, but they’re not going to get much notice. And the lobbying from the lawyers is going to intensify.

ELEANOR HALL: Catherine McGrath, our Chief Political Correspondent, thank you.

Amnesty's death row campaign draws record response
Amnesty International says Australians are responding in record numbers to its campaign to save a Melbourne man sentenced to death in Singapore.

Van Nguyen, 25, has been convicted of heroin smuggling and could be executed within weeks.

Prime Minister John Howard says the Federal Government has done all it can.

But Tim Goodwin, from Amnesty International, says the fight is far from over.

"We're also getting a lot of support from the broader Australian community as well," he said.

"People are contacting us, they're logging onto our website, they're phoning us in record numbers asking us what they can do to actually voice their protest and take a stand for basic human rights in this case."

But Mr Goodwin concedes it is a major challenge to try to convince Singapore's Government to change its mind.

"They do have a very tough record, a very brutal record of carrying out executions and we're very aware of that but at the same time we're not going to give up on this case," he said.

"While ever he's still alive we're going to keep campaigning, keep raising awareness of this issue and the fundamental violation that actually is the death penalty."

Politicians support Nguyen
October 30, 2005

AUSTRALIA'S Federal politicians have thrown their weight behind a petition to stop the execution of a Melbourne man in Singapore.

Van Tuong Nguyen, 25, faces execution after losing a clemency appeal against his heroin smuggling conviction.

In a last-ditched bid, Nguyen's mother, Kim, has begged the Queen to help save her son.

If his bid to stop the execution fails, Nguyen is expected to be hanged within weeks.

Amnesty International Parliamentary Group chairman Bruce Baird said more than 300 Federal parliamentarians had signed a petition calling for clemency for Nguyen.

Mr Baird said he hoped to present the petition for Singapore's High Commissioner in Canberra this week.

"I am very pleased that my colleagues have answered the call to make a last, very personal plea to the Singaporean government to save this young man," Mr Baird said.

"We know that the law in Singapore imposes a mandatory death penalty for possession of more than 15 grams of heroin. We are also aware of the gravity of Mr Nguyen's crime.

"However, Singapore's constitution specifically provides for clemency in special cases. The Amnesty International Parliamentary Group have repeatedly called for the executive government of Singapore to exercise this power, to commute this young man's sentence to a custodial sentence."

UN official criticises Govt over Nguyen case
Friday October 28, 07:43 PM A senior United Nations human rights official says the Australian Government has mishandled the appeal for clemency for Van Nguyen, who is on death row in Singapore.

Twenty-five-year-old Nguyen was convicted for smuggling heroin into Singapore in December 2002.

Professor Philip Alston, the chief adviser on the death penalty to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, says Australia should be aggressively lobbying Asian countries that apply the death penalty in drug cases.

Professor Alston is a professor of law at New York University and the brother of the former Howard Government minister Richard Alston.

He has also been lobbying the Singaporean Government over the case of the Melbourne man on behalf of the UN.

He says that applying a mandatory element to the death penalty in drug cases is a contravention of international law.

Professor Alston is critical of the Australian Government's approach to the Nguyen case, saying it is not enough for the Government to seek clemency in an individual case.

"The appropriate approach which the Government should take, but has opted not to, is pressing not Singapore but a range of other countries in the region on the fact that they treat drug offences as being punishable by death, which is not appropriate under international law," he said.

"Secondly, they classify these cases as requiring a mandatory or compulsory death penalty. So it doesn't matter what the individual circumstances of the case are, the court has no option, no matter how mitigating factors might be brought into case, except to say 'you must die', and that's if there's no further appeal, there's no further consideration.

"That's not consistent with international law, there's a very strong body of that indicating that governments are not permitted to do that sort of thing.

"Now the Australian Government has not been pushing these arguments at all, as far as I've seen, and while it's encouraging that they express regret, I think there is another step they need to take, and it's not just in one of these individual cases but it's going to affect an increasing number of Australians."

Professor Alston says the Australian Government needs to raise the profile of its anti-death penalty argument in the Asian region.

He contrasts the situation to the Federal Government's stance on lobbying Asian Governments on terrorism laws.

"I've seen statements by the Prime Minister [John Howard] and others saying that these are sovereign decisions for other countries and we can't interfere," he said.

"That's not the line we take in relation to policing of terrorism or others instances, where it's clear that international standards are not being respected.

"We don't hesitate to speak out, we say, 'as a law-abiding nation, you should reconsider your laws, you should bring them into line within international standards'.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't be doing that now in relation to these drug offences, where the imposition of mandatory death penalty for a relatively minor drug offence is out of all proportion and it's just not consistent with international legal requirements."

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer has dismissed Professor Alston's claims

"To go around accusing the Australian Government of not being successful in our representations when the United Nations hasn't been successful either, I think is a little unreasonable," he said.

"Look, we obviously do not want people to hang who are Australian citizens and we will always stick up for Australians anywhere in the world in opposing their execution."

Mr Downer says the Federal Government has done everything it can to save the life of Nguyen, but he says there is only so much that can be done and that Professor Alston has no right to be critical.

"These countries unfortunately make their own decisions. We can't control them, we can only make representations and I make the point that if the United Nations feels this way, and if it has made representations, I make the observation that its strategy hasn't worked and nor has ours," he said.

"So I mean I think we should both, in humility, accept that the Singaporeans are going to exercise their own sovereignty in these matters."

Mum seeks Queen's help to save son on death row
The mother of a Melbourne man facing execution in Singapore has written to the Queen asking for her to intervene.

Van Nguyen is expected to be hanged within the next few weeks after appeals for clemency from the Australian Government failed.

The 25-year-old was convicted of trafficking heroin and Kim Nguyen wants the Queen to ask the Singaporean Government to commute the sentence.

Nguyen's legal counsel, Julian McMahon, says the letter will be translated from Vietnamese and sent to Buckingham Palace this week.

"It's a very simple and genuine effort by a mother in desperate need and I expect the Queen will respond perhaps through one of her advisers or herself, I obviously couldn't say," he said.

Mr McMahon has called on Prime Minister John Howard to directly ask the Singaporean Government to overturn Nguyen's death sentence.

Mr McMahon says Mr Howard should be doing more.

"I think the time is for the Prime Minister to step up and make it abundantly clear that this is an Australian citizen and you are our closest friends, our regional friends in Singapore, we don't want you to hang an Australian citizen, put him in prison for 30 years, so be it," he said.

Lawyer Lex Lasry will go to Canberra tomorrow to speak to the Singaporean High Commissioner about the case.

Young Aussie confronts lonely death
INSIGHT. The hangman awaits those who play the drug game in South East Asia, reports Jamie Walker 29oct05

FOR now, he lives behind a wall of bars on the grimly efficient death row of Singapore's Changi Prison.

His chief distraction is to write letters home to his mother and friends in Melbourne; when he does receive visitors – usually his local lawyers – no physical contact is allowed.

Time is running out for 25-year-old Nguyen Tuong Van as he confronts his lonely, terrifying and seemingly inevitable date with the hangman.

On Friday last week, the day he was told his final bid for clemency had been rejected by the Singaporean President, his closest friend inside Changi went to the gallows. Nguyen's own execution could come as soon as next Friday week, making him the first Australian to be put to death for drug running since Queenslander Michael McAuliffe was hanged in Malaysia in 1993.

Until this week, the Melburnian's plight had barely flickered on to the radar of public concern in Australia.

But with the Bali Nine facing the firing squad in Indonesia and two convicted Australian drug traffickers on death row in Vietnam, Nguyen's likely hanging looms as a forbidding portent for any Australians who roll the dice with their lives and carry heroin into South East Asia.

Accused Bali Nine drug mule Renae Lawrence was again in court in Bali yesterday, arriving shackled to Adelaide-born model Michelle Leslie who faced court for the first time charged with possessing two ecstasy tablets.

While Leslie's ordeal is starting, Nguyen is near the end of the line.

Australian Federal Police confirmed information from him led to the conviction of a Sydney man on a drug offence. This raised hopes Singapore might accept his cooperation as grounds for a reprieve.

But while Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says he is making "one last ditch effort", he doubts it will do much good.

"I'm going to point out . . . the support and information that Nguyen has given . . . and ask them if they could reconsider the case," Mr Downer said. "But, to be honest with you, I don't think they will."

As friends of Nguyen yesterday made a tearful plea to Australians to support a campaign to save his life, Singaporean legal expert Hoong Phun Lee, of Melbourne's Monash University, said the odds were heavily stacked against the young Vietnamese-Australian.

"My view is that a reprieve at this late stage is a very remote possibility," Professor Lee said.

Nguyen's descent from his family life in suburban Melbourne to death row is a personal tragedy and salutary warning.

Known to his friends and family as Van, he is the former boy scout who was asked to compere his high school's valedictory dinner.

Good-natured and likable, he had not been particularly academic. But his friend, Kelly Ng, admired how he worked a night job while at Mt Waverley Secondary College to help his immigrant mother, Kim Nguyen, make ends meet.

Another friend, Bronwyn Lew, would find him hanging out the washing at home.

"He took a lot of responsibility for the chores, for everything," she said, before launching his legal team's latest effort to drum up public support.

Some indication of how things went so awry, so quickly, for Nguyen is contained in statement he made to Singaporean police after he was arrested on December 12, 2002, while boarding a Qantas flight with 396.2g of heroin strapped to his back and in his hand luggage.

Nguyen says he completed high school intending to enrol in business studies at Deakin University, but, short of money, had gone to work instead.

By 1999, he had set up his own business selling computers.

As he tells the story, he had to sell the company to cover the legal expenses of his twin brother, Kwa, who was facing drug and assault charges. The debts piled up and by October 2002 Nguyen was desperate. He owed a "friend", Jonathan Lim, more than $20,000.

This included a $12,000 loan Lim had made to Kwa and which Nguyen had taken on.

On top of that he was living in a shared house where only two of the five residents paid rent. Nguyen himself was not working because he had been incapacitated by an acne condition, he told the Singaporean police.

Nguyen says he approached a Chinese-Australian named Tan, who he knew from an inner-city Melbourne cafe called Puccini. Could he help him make some "quick money?"

Tan, according to Nguyen, said he might have something. Later, he arranged for him to travel to Sydney to meet a Vietnamese man named Sun.

Nguyen says he was left in no doubt what the deal was.

Sun explained that he would carry a package of "white" – heroin or possibly cocaine – from Cambodia to Singapore and on to Melbourne and perhaps Sydney.

Nguyen agreed.

He was subsequently provided with an airline ticket to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and $US1000 ($1321) in spending money. He was told to be at the Lucky Burger restaurant in Phnom Penh at 3pm sharp on December 4, 2002, where he would be met by his local contact.

If this case was not so tragic, what transpired next would be almost comical.

Nguyen claims he was forced to smoke heroin by the contact, who did not identify himself.

He was taken to a garage and had blocks of heroin rock taped to his back before being escorted back to his hotel.

Later, he would be given a coffee grinder to crush the heroin into powder. Nguyen was so clueless that he botched the job, and couldn't be bothered redoing it. Then he realised he had no sticky tape to strap the two bags of partially powderised heroin to his body.

He had been told to attach both packages to his back, but managed to get only one on with the yellow and white sticky tape he bought from a convenience store.

The second bag he strapped to his abdomen.

Unfortunately for him, he had trussed himself so tightly that he couldn't breath when he boarded his Silkair flight to Singapore on December 12, 2002. He went to the toilet, removed the bag on his abdomen, and slid it into his backpack.

During the transit in Singapore, where he was to connect to a Qantas flight to Melbourne, he fell asleep in the passenger lounge, waking far from the boarding gate with only 10 minutes to make the aircraft's 7.40pm departure.

Flustered and out of breath, he knew the game was up when the metal detector beeped at the boarding gate.

A female security officer passed her hand over his lower back. "What is this?" she asked him.

Whisked into an interview room, he immediately owned up: "It's heroin, sir."

Under Singaporean law, possession of more than 15g of heroin carries a mandatory death sentence. Nguyen was carrying 26 times that amount. He has never disputed his guilt.

At his trial and on appeal, the defence argued instead that Nguyen's confessions were inadmissible, partly because he was not given prompt access to Australian consular personnel.

They also cited inconsistencies in the weighing of the seized heroin and, on a wider level, with the constitutionality of the death sentence itself. None of the defence grounds was accepted.

From the outset, Nguyen offered full co-operation with the Singaporean and Australian police. His affidavit identifying by surname his Australian recruiters, Tan and Sun, went into the trial transcript.

In January he was interviewed in Singapore by the AFP, which said in a statement to The Courier-Mail: "Information obtained during this interview triggered further inquiries in Australia by the AFP."

However, neither the federal nor NSW police forces was prepared yesterday to divulge details of the conviction of a Sydney man – for state drug offences, including possession – that resulted from Nguyen's information.

No further arrests had been made, the AFP said, but his statements "continue to form part of AFP's intelligence holdings relating to organised criminal groups operating to import illicit drugs into Australia".

The AFP has furnished to Nguyen's Australian lawyers three so-called "letters of comfort" attesting to his co-operation.

The defence team's leader, Lex Lasry, QC, hopes to exploit a loophole in the Singaporean constitution which would spare the young man from execution so he could assist police. The bad news for Nguyen, however, is that the AFP seems to have extracted all the information it wants from him. "My understanding is that all avenues of inquiry have been exhausted," a spokeswoman for the federal police said yesterday.

Mr Lasry is also trying to prevail on Prime Minister John Howard to appeal directly to the Singaporean government for clemency for Nguyen. Professor Lee agrees with Mr Lasry that such "a plea from the Prime Minister would be listened to with great respect".

But Mr Howard said earlier this week it would be a futile gesture in the absence of new evidence supporting the condemned man.

While there has been commentary about the apparent lack of public support for Nguyen –contrasting his plight with convicted marijuana trafficker Schapelle Corby in Bali, commentator Phillip Adams this week described the reaction to his impending execution as "the silence of the suppressed yawn" – Professor Lee believes this is not so much about latent racism or indifference as legal tactics.

He says it was in everyone's interest, especially Nguyen's, that the case be kept low profile by his lawyers and the Australian Government until all legal avenues had been exhausted in Singapore.

Some very touchy political questions are in play, Professor Lee says. The Singaporeans have always bridled at what former prime minister Lee Kwan Yew called the imposition of "western values".

Professor Lee says: "The history with these cases is that too much publicity . . . too much pressure early on can actually backfire. If they (the Singaporeans) feel they are being dictated to, they dig their heels in."

Death row prisoners in Singapore are generally executed within six weeks of the president rejecting their final bid for clemency.

In some cases, sentence is carried out within three weeks.

That means the Australian could go to the gallows on any given Friday morning from November 11.

He will be given as little as five days notice, according to Amnesty International's Brisbane-based anti-death penalty campaigner Tim Goodwin, but some of the tight restrictions will be eased in those last, awful days.

A television might be wheeled into his cell. Nguyen will also be given a choice of food and allowed more frequent visits.

"I only pray for courage," he wrote in a recent letter to his friend, Kelly Ng. "Lest God's will be done."

Qld Parliament calls for clemency for Van Tuong Nyugen

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie moved a motion today urging the Singaporean Cabinet to reconsider its decision and commute Mr Van Tuong Nguyen's death sentence to a custodial sentence. (Full motion is attached below)

The motion was sponsored by the Parliamentary Amnesty International Group. The motion was seconded by Parliamentary Amnesty Group Convenor, Dean Wells MP.

Opposition Leader and Parliamentary Group Deputy Convenor Lawrence Springborg and Liberal Party Leader Bob Quinn also spoke in favour of the bipartisan motion, which passed through State Parliament unopposed. Member for Gladstone, Elizabeth Cunningham also spoke in support of the motion.

This motion makes another step in the campaign for clemency for Van Tuong Nyugen.

"While there is life, there is hope. We will continue to work to persuade the Singaporean Government to show compassion and spare this young man's life," Mr Wells said.

"Queensland was the first State in Australia to abolish the death penalty in 1922, and today the Queensland Parliament is leading the way in passing a motion calling for clemency for this young Australian."

The Tasmanian Parliament passed a similar motion yesterday and similar motions are expected to be passed in Federal Parliament next week and other State and Terrority Parliaments in the near future.

Just in case you forgot - read the Universal declaration of Human Rights
All information is © Copyright 1997 - 2006 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff
All information is © Copyright 1997 - 2006 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff