Australian man to be executed in Singapore

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Supporters of convicted Australian drug trafficker, Van Nguyen, gathered outside the State Library in Melbourne yesterday to display thousands of messages of opposition to his death sentence.

Callers to talkback radio in Melbourne were overwhelmingly against the death penalty of Nguyen, who immediately admitted his guilt and has cooperated with authorities since being caught smuggling heroin into Singapore. Many called for a boycott of Singaporean products.

25-year-old Nguyen was arrested at Changi Airport in 2002 for carrying heroin and sentenced to death in March. Nguyen claims he carried the 396 grams of heroin strapped to his body in an attempt to pay off his brother Khoa's $30,000 legal debts.

The Singapore government have announced they will execute Nguyen at dawn on December 2nd. Singapore President S. R. Nathan rejected Nguyen's clemency four weeks ago. The Melbourne salesman was sentenced to death under Singapore law which determines a mandatory death sentence for anyone found guilty of possessing 15 grams of heroin or more.

Nguyen's mother was informed on Thursday by registered mail from the Singapore prisons service of the execution date. The letter stated that she should start making funeral arrangements. She will get to see her son in the three days leading up to the execution.

Despite repeated pleas for clemency from many thousands of supporters; religious groups; human rights organisations; the Pope; and the Australian Government - including Prime Minister, John Howard - Singapore officials have said Nguyen's execution is irreversible.

Mr Howard had argued that Nguyen should be spared, citing mitigating circumstances in his case which pointed to the fact that he was not a serial drug trafficker but had merely been trying to pay off his brother's debts.

The Victorian Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, says the Singaporean Government has shown no compassion whatsoever in its treatment of Van Nguyen and his family.

"What's happening is brutal, is inappropriate. I, and the Victorian Government, vehemently oppose the death penalty in any circumstances", he told ABC Radio. "This is a young kid who has assisted the police all the way... In any other country, he would get a discount in relation to the penalty. But because there is a mandatory death penalty for drug offences in Singapore, this young man may well be executed. It is just grossly inappropriate."

"Singapore maintains that capital punishment is a criminal justice issue; it is the sovereign right of every country to decide whether or not to include capital punishment within its criminal justice system," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

Singapore argues that there was no international consensus that capital punishment should be abolished. At the most recent meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights, 66 countries dissociated themselves from a resolution calling for the abolition of capital punishment.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong affirmed Singapore's position by saying that it has to "stand firm on drugs to protect its citizens from the scourge and to ensure the country does not become a conduit for the trafficking of illicit drugs."

In reply to a letter appealing for clemency from his Australian counterpart Alexander Downer, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said: "Mr Nguyen imported almost 400gm of pure heroin which would have supplied more than 26,000 doses to drug addicts."

No one will be permitted to see Nguyen on the morning of his execution. His body will be released to his mother.

Bungle over execution date release

On Thursday, a letter informing Nguyen's mother of the Dec 2 date was accidentally sent earlier than intended by the Singapore authorities. As a result, Australian Prime Minister John Howard was caught offguard when asked by reporters on Thursday if he knew that Nguyen would be executed on Dec 2.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer yesterday admitted he had been told several days ago that a letter would be sent this week to Nguyen's mother. Mr Downer said his Singapore counterpart, George Yeo, had told him on Monday night, when they were both in Busan, that the family would be sent a letter which they would receive yesterday.

"So the Singapore Prime Minister had assumed that the letter would arrive on Friday," Mr Downer said. "The letter arrived a day earlier than they had anticipated."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday the differences between Australia and Singapore over the planned execution of convicted drug smuggler Nguyen Tuong Van would not damage relations between the two countries.

"It is not an issue where we agree but our disagreement on the treatment of Mr Nguyen is not going to contaminate the very good relationship between Australia and Singapore," Mr Howard was quoted as saying in an AAP report.

Lawyers say: regime should change

Mr Lex Lasry, QC, who heads Nguyen's Melbourne legal team, recently told Singapore's high commissioner in Canberra that the "regime" of the mandatory death penalty would have to change.

"At some point, the Singapore Government must realise as a First World country it can no longer continue to impose mandatory death sentences. They simply can't keep doing this to people," he said. He described as an "outrageous injustice" the Singapore law that denies lawyers the chance to argue to a judge why a client should not be hanged.

"Let the rest of the world know we are not prepared to tolerate it and ultimately they will have to change their minds," he said.

"Even if our client is executed as he probably will be, the campaign against Singapore's mandatory death sentence will continue," Mr Lasry said.

Mr Lasry said the fight to save Nguyen would continue over the next few weeks.

Execution methods reviewed

Nguyen Tuong Van may be the last person to face the hangman in Singapore after a review of execution methods in Singapore. The nation's chief hangman, Darshan Singh, has told prison officials he wants to retire, but finding a replacement has been unsuccessful. One of two candidates picked to replace Mr Singh was unable to complete his first execution. A second left the prison service.

Mr Singh, a veteran of over 850 hangings, is reportedly unhappy with the new machinery, which is prone to malfunction. The Australian newspaper reports that Singapore officials have been studying other methods of execution and are considering the lethal injection technique used in the United States.

The lethal injection method being considered by Singapore officials as an alternative is modelled on the procedure introduced in 1977 in Oklahoma. The prisoner is strapped to a gurney and an intravenous tube is inserted into each arm with a flow of harmless saline solution. At the warden's signal, 5g of sodium pentothal is administered, which renders the prisoner unconscious.

It is followed by pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant that paralyses the diaphragm and lungs, and finally potassium chloride, which causes cardiac arrest.


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