Nguyen Tuong Van’s journey from Vietnamese refugee-cum-suburban boy scout to drug trafficker facing a date later this year with the Singapore hangman began with a friendly conversation in Melbourne’s Puccini Cafe.
It was there in early November 2002 that a Chinese acquaintance, known as Tan, said he could help him pay off about $25,000 worth of debts Nguyen had taken on for his twin brother, Khoa.
At the time, Nguyen did not know that Tan’s plan would involve him carrying almost 400g of heroin through one of the world’s toughest anti-drug countries – Singapore.
In a hearing lasting less than five minutes on Saturday, judge Kan Ting Chui ruled in Singapore’s High Court that the 23-year-old Australian would face the mandatory death penalty for smuggling 396.2g of heroin into the city-state.
Barely glancing at Nguyen, who stood composed in the dock, Judge Kan said: “You will be taken from the prison to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead.”
A court appeal, if launched, will be heard within two months. Should that fail, his lawyers could seek presidential clemency, which would be decided within six months. But only six people have ever been granted presidential clemency. If all these avenues fail, Nguyen will then be hung within weeks inside Changi Prison at 6am one Friday, becoming the first Australian to be executed in more than a decade.
The Australian Government faces a dilemma. Without a strong argument that Nguyen was more foolish boy than malevolent criminal, he has almost no chance of clemency.
Moreover, pressure from Canberra on Singapore is likely to be resented by the authoritarian regime, which according to Amnesty International has executed 400 people in the past 13 years, giving it the highest per-capita rate in the world.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the Government “would do what we can to save his life”, but acknowledged “it is a difficult challenge for us”.
The last Australian to be executed was Michael Denis McAuliffe, in Malaysia in 1993.
That case did not attract the high-level intervention of that of Brian Chambers and Kevin Barlow, whose executions in 1986 created enormous tensions between the Hawke government and Malaysia.
Part of the difficulty for Nguyen’s advocates is that there is no question of his innocence, despite his mandatory not-guilty plea.
From the moment a security officer at the departure lounge of Changi airport – where Nguyen was to board Qantas flight 10 back to Melbourne on December 12, 2002 – noticed his nervousness and felt a bag of heroin strapped to his back, he told authorities everything.
According to documents tendered to the court, after Nguyen met Tan, he was flown to Sydney to meet a Vietnamese man named Sun, who eventually gave him a return ticket to Phnom Penh via Singapore, $US1000 for expenses and a list of instructions for collecting the heroin he was to smuggle.
Nguyen checked into the Pacific Hotel in Phnom Penh to wait for his contact at the Lucky Burger restaurant opposite.
His contacts – a Cambodian man and another man who spoke Vietnamese – forced him to smoke heroin using a rolled-up bank note in a garage somewhere in Phnom Penh, presumably to demonstrate he was not an undercover policeman.
When Nguyen initially refused, the Vietnamese-speaker banged a rod on the table and warned him: “F..k your mother. Smoke or die”.
Nguyen told investigators: “I knew I would be killed if I did not follow what they told me to do.”
Apart from a diversion to Ho Chi Minh City – Nguyen went to Vietnam for two days because he “was too stressed to stay in Phnom Penh” – he spent most of his nine-day trip shopping for fake designer watches and belts he had intended to give to family and friends on his return.
The syndicate gave him two rocks of heroin that he was instructed to grind in a coffee grinder and place in separate bags. Nguyen went back to his hotel and took hours to break the rocks with a hammer, grind and place the powder in bags. He then used tape to strap the bags to his lower back and abdomen.
On the flight from Phnom Penh to Singapore on December 12, he found he had trouble breathing and put the package strapped to his stomach in his backpack.
During his stopover in Singapore Nguyen considered pulling out.
He told investigators he was afraid he was being watched. “The people in Phnom Penh warned me that the syndicate knew where I lived and warned me not to messed (sic) up … I had no choice but to deliver the two packets of heroin to someone in Australia.”
Moments after deciding to press on, he was caught during a body pat- down search at the gate when the metal detector alarm was triggered.
Nguyen and his twin brother were born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980 but were moved to Australia when they were only a few months old.
His Vietnamese mother chose Australia because she knew the country from a map and hoped that there her fatherless sons would “grow up and get a job”. Until his ill-fated journey, Nguyen had never left Australia.
Van, as he is known to family and friends, was an ordinary suburban kid who loved playing tennis and joined a Vietnamese scout troop in Melbourne’s southeastern suburbs that combined Vietnamese customs and dress with the traditions of scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell. His brother was once charged with affray and drug offences, leading to massive legal fees. Nguyen, who worked as a salesman on commission, took it upon himself to clear them.
Nguyen’s mother, Kim, has not given up hope that her son’s life will be spared. Speaking to The Australian after seeing him on Saturday, she said Nguyen was calm but “very worried”.
“He was praying before God that there was a chance for him to come back home and redeem himself and be a good person.”