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Death in the age of reason
By Michelle Grattan


Policemen patrol the walls of Singapore's Changi Prison, where Australian Nguyen Tuong Van is being held and where, barring a last-minute act of clemency, he faces death by hanging. Photo: AP
The imminent hanging - barring an unexpected miracle of Singaporean clemency - of the young Australian Nguyen Tuong Van is a horrible and sad human tragedy. But it's more than that.

It's the latest example of how capital punishment and lesser-but-excessive sentences for drug crimes in Asia are becoming a serious complication for Australia in its dealings with the region.

The extreme and automatic penalty imposed on Nguyen (for trafficking heroin which he said was to pay for his twin brother's debts) is a jolting reminder of the appalling disregard for human rights by some of our neighbours who are also our friends.

The Schapelle Corby case, fanned by often feral media, stirred up a lot of negative feeling in this country against Indonesia.

While Corby is to serve an inordinately long sentence, it has been clear for some time that Nguyen, whose fate was receiving a lot less media attention, would almost certainly be executed. Prime Minister John Howard, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Governor-General Michael Jeffery each made strong representations, but to no effect.

In contrast, a plea by Downer to the Vietnamese Government recently resulted in an Australian's death sentence being commuted, although the Government is still fighting for two others on death row there.

The Nguyen case highlights, in the starkest terms, the gulf in values between Australia and some neighbouring countries.

Of course Australia, too, once had the death penalty (though only for the most serious crime), and in opinion polls many Australians still favour it. But, despite the ever-worsening civil liberties climate, we can be confident capital punishment will never return to this country. Australian decision-makers crossed an important moral line several decades ago and there will be no going back.

Singapore's attitude is barbaric, pure and simple. The report last week about the 73-year old Singapore executioner, who has put to death more than 850 people and once hanged 18 men in one day, was chilling. It's hard to believe such an approach to human life can exist in a country that is in some ways a model of modernity.

Asad Latif, a former senior reporter with The Straits Times, wrote in The Australian last week that "no one has the right to expect, let alone demand, that Singapore bend its laws to suit the laws of another country.

"The main issue is that of sovereignty. The laws of Singapore prevail in the land called Singapore," he wrote.

  • Nguyen Tuong Van Case Information

  • Fighting against the tide of opinion


    Nguyen Tuong Van, who is facing execution in Singapore, in a family photo. Photo: Supplied
    Despite a global move towards abolition of the death penalty, the issue barely rates a mention in most of South-East Asia. Connie Levett reports.

    THAILAND likes to parade its villains. This week, Thai television aired taxi driver Narong Panyee's confession that he had robbed and raped more female passengers than he could remember since his release from prison two years ago. During the report, the news ticker began to roll across bottom of the screen, streaming the anger of viewers via SMS: "He should be castrated; He should die; We should kill him".

    In Singapore, by contrast, when friends of Shanmugam Murugesu, army veteran and jet-ski world champion, held a concert and vigil earlier this year to try and prevent his execution for drug trafficking, authorities responded by banning the use of Shanmugam's face on the promotional fliers.

    The fact that Shanmugam's execution he was hanged on May 13 for importing almost two kilograms of cannabis received any publicity at all was because his family took the unusual step of speaking out against the sentence. His mother, Letchumi Murugesu, is now calling for mercy for convicted Melbourne drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van, and will speak at a forum on the death penalty in Singapore on Monday. If organisers attract 100 people, they will consider it a great success.

    None of this is likely to be of any consolation to Nguyen, whose execution seems imminent after the Singapore Government this week announced it would not reverse its decision to refuse him clemency. While the Melbourne man's supporters and lawyers fight desperately for a last-minute reprieve arguing his previously clean record, difficult personal circumstances and value as an informant what is most apparent in South-East Asia is the lack of discussion or concern about the death penalty.

    In Singapore, Nguyen's case has barely registered. After a brief report on his failed clemency appeal, the broadsheet Straits Times ran a follow-up wire agency story, filed from Canberra, on Australia's reaction to the decision. The story ran in the world section, as if it had nothing to do with Singapore.

    There have been no opinion pieces, and letters to the editor have supported the Singapore Government's stand.

    On October 29, the Straits Times ran a letter from an Australian who supported the execution, saying "once again, our Asian neighbours show us they have something to teach us. It's a pity most of our politicians are such poor students".

    Sudhir Thomas, 28, raised the issue on his "Musings from Singapore" web blog. "I don't think many people see the existence of the death penalty as a violation of fundamental human rights," he says. "People view it as the harshest punishment available but don't draw that line between incarceration and the death penalty as one being acceptable and the other not.

    Singapore refuses to stop execution of Australian drug smuggler

    Singapore (dpa) - Singapore stood firm on Thursday in refusing to spare the life of an Australian due to be executed by hanging for drug smuggling.

    Despite appeals from the highest levels of Australia's government, parliament and human rights groups, Foreign Minister George Yeo squashed all hopes of sparing the life of Nguyen Tuong Van, 25.

    In a letter to Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and another to Kevin Rudd, speaker of the House of Representatives, Yeo said, "Due to the seriousness of the offence and the need to hold firm our national position against drug trafficking, we are unable to change our decision."

    "It was not a decision taken lightly," Yeo said in the letter distributed to the media.

    Nguyen was sentenced to death in March 2004 after being convicted for smuggling almost 400 grams of heroin from Cambodia. He was arrested at Singapore's Changi Airport in December 2002, where he was in transit for Australia.

    Singapore's President S.R. Nathan rejected Nguyen's final plea for clemency on October 21, despite intense lobbying from Australia over the past 18 months.

    Hangings are usually carried out three weeks after a clemency appeal is turned down. The executions at Changi prison take place at 6 a.m. (2200 GMT) on Fridays.

    Efforts to spare Nguyen's life have continued. The parliament in Canberra passed a motion calling on Singapore not to hang Nguyen. His lawyer called for direct intervention from Prime Minister John Howard.

    A rights group in Singapore said it was planning a protest Monday night at a hotel since the city-state has strict rules regarding demonstrations and public gatherings.

    Nguyen's mother fled Vietnam in a boat in 1980 and had her twin sons in a transit camp in Thailand before being accepted into Australia four months later.

    Nguyen admitted he acted as a drug courier, but only to help his twin brother pay off debts to loan sharks.

    Yeo said he understands why Nguyen's family and many Australians must "find it hard" to accept the decision against clemency.

    "We, on our part in Singapore, have a responsibility to protect the people...from the scourge of drug addiction, which has destroyed many lives and inflicted great suffering on many families," Yeo said.

    "We also have a responsibility to prevent Singapore from becoming a conduit for the trafficking of illicit drugs in the region," he said.

    Yeo reiterated that Nguyen imported almost 400 grams of pure heroin, which would have supplied more than 26,000 doses to drug addicts.

    Australia is a fierce opponent of the death penalty, but Singapore mandates the gallows for murder and drug trafficking.

    Nguyen will be the first Australian executed for drug charges since 1993 when Michael Dennis McAuliffe was hanged for drug trafficking in Malaysia.

    Merciless city-state is the hangman of Asia
    Singapore's people back capital punishment, writes Jake Lloyd-Smith

    WHEN the Changi Prison executioner loops a noose around the neck of Australian Nguyen Tuong Van, Singapore will be living up to its reputation as the hangman of Asia.

    The tightly controlled city-state governed uninterrupted by the People's Action Party since 1959 is ranked by human rights group Amnesty International as having the world's highest per-capita execution rate. Between 1991 and 2000, 340 people were hanged in Singapore, according to official figures.

    Some years are busier than others. For example, 50 people were hanged in 1996, meaning the gallows were used almost once a week.

    Death sentences in Singapore are mostly imposed for drug trafficking, such as in Nguyen's case.

    But it is also handed down for murder, kidnapping and some firearms offences.

    Tradition dictates that hangings are always set for the early hours of a Friday. Although criticised abroad, Singapore's tough capital punishment policy is broadly supported at home, where opinion polls periodically show hanging is backed by about seven out of 10 Singaporeans.

    But there are a handful of people who disagree.

    "Drug addiction cannot be solved by hanging a few people, and these are normally the small-timers . . . not the masterminds," human rights activist Sinapan Samydorai said.

    Mr Sinapan, a spokesman for the group Think Centre, is one of a few dozen people set to protest against Nguyen's impending death at a rare vigil planned for Monday.

    Melbourne salesman Nguyen, 25, was arrested at Changi Airport in 2002 as he was about to board a flight to Australia.

    He was carrying 396g of heroin; enough, Singapore authorities say, for 26,000 doses.

    The final avenue for appeal appears to have been exhausted.

    Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer has received a letter from his Singapore counterpart, George Yeo, rejecting any last-minute bid for clemency.

    The city-state had a responsibility to prevent Singapore from becoming a conduit for the trafficking of illicit drugs, the letter said. It added that the final decision to take Nguyen's life was debated by Cabinet and had not been taken lightly.

    Singapore argues the noose has helped keep it safe from serious crime, especially drug trafficking.

    "The Singapore Government makes no apology for its tough law and order system," the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a written defence last year of capital punishment.

    "The death penalty is a just punishment for those who knowingly and intentionally commit serious crimes, which threaten the lives of others.

    "The death penalty, because of its finality, is more feared than imprisonment as a punishment."

    Most of those hanged are Singaporean citizens, and the majority are condemned for drug-related crimes.

    But official figures also show that the system is more likely to be used against the jobless or low-skilled.

    A 2004 document said Singapore executed 138 people in the five years to 2003. Of those 37, or one-quarter, were foreigners. This figure tallies almost exactly with the proportion of non-Singapore nationals who are resident in the city-state.

    Of the same group of 138, 110 were executed for drug-related offences.

    During the 10 years to 2003, 51 per cent of those hanged were unemployed or working as unskilled workers, labourers or cleaners.

    Sixty-four per cent of those hanged were either educated only to primary school level or had no schooling.

    Opponents of the death penalty fire back that executions do not make Singapore safer and violate what they regard as a sacrosanct right to life.

    On it website this week, Think Centre asked: "If this inhumane practice is really a deterrent, how come we after 40 years of executions still have the highest per-capita execution rate in the world with the greatest known proportion of these executions small-time drug mules?"

    As Nguyen is a foreigner, the authorities will inform his next of kin and the Australian High Commission of the chosen date between seven and 14 days in advance, compared with the four days' notice usually allowed for locals.

    He will then be allowed visits from relatives of up to four hours during his final few days. His execution will be witnessed by a doctor and his body will be handed back to his family.

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    All information is Copyright 1997 - 2005 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff