Clemency pleas likely to fall on deaf ears

Mark Baker
Sydney Morning Herald
22 March 2004

Most Friday mornings a brutal and archaic ritual is performed in the dank recesses of Changi Prison. Moments before dawn, the convict is led from the solitary confinement cells on death row. A hood is placed over the head and a rope, already cut according to the prisoner’s weight, is looped around the neck.

The preparations complete, a trapdoor is sprung and another condemned man – or woman – is propelled to oblivion.

In the past decade more than 400 prisoners in Singapore have received what most developed nations deem a cruel, inhuman punishment under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Within weeks, a former Melbourne salesman, Nguyen Tuong Van, 23, is likely to be added to this toll, after he was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to death by the Singapore High Court. Nguyen was not a drug addict, a seasoned criminal or even a person seeking to enter Singapore with contraband.

He was arrested in transit at Changi Airport on December 12, 2002, from Cambodia. As he prepared to board a flight to Melbourne, security guards found a package strapped to his back and another in his hand luggage that were later alleged to contain 396 grams of heroin.

The court was told that Nguyen had been lured by a Sydney-based syndicate into making a drug run to repay debts accrued by his twin brother. Under Singapore law anyone caught with 15 grams or more of heroin is deemed a drug trafficker and the mandatory penalty is death.

Nguyen’s chances of survival now hinge on either an appeal to Singapore’s Supreme Court, or a plea for clemency to President S. R.Nathan. Chief Justice Yong Pung How is notoriously uncompromising in drug appeal cases, and pleas for presidential clemency rarely succeed.

There is little reason to believe that calls by the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, to stop the hanging of Nguyen will get a sympathetic hearing.

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