INSIGHT. The hangman awaits those who play the drug game in South East Asia, reports Jamie Walker
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.
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."