Australia considering taking Nguyen case to ICJ

Craig Skehan and Louise Dodson
Sydney Morning Herald
21 Nov 05

The Australian Government is considering taking Singapore to the International Court of Justice in a last-ditch effort to save the 25-year-old Australian Nguyen Tuong Van from the gallows.

The Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, has sought advice from his department on mounting a case and is expected to receive advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, is taking a direct interest in the case after personal pleas for clemency to Singapore’s leaders failed.

The first step would be to seek an international court ruling that there should be a stay of execution for Nguyen, who is due to hang on Friday next week.

The court could then rule on whether Singapore’s mandatory death penalty for drugs and other offences – without scope for the courts to weigh mitigation – breaches international law.

The Australian Government sought clemency for Nguyen on the grounds that he is a first offender who showed remorse and helped police after acting as a heroin courier in order to pay pressing debts of his drug-addicted identical twin brother, Khoa.

A Singapore human rights lawyer, M. Ravi, said yesterday that Australia could have the matter before the court within days without damaging bilateral relations, noting the court had previously intervened in death penalty cases.

Amnesty International’s Tim Goodwin said while Singapore could technically agree to jointly take the matter to the court, it might well be hostile to any such move.

“We would welcome any avenue that would hold up or prevent Nguyen Tuong Van’s execution,” Mr Goodwin said.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, sounded a caution yesterday, playing down prospects of Singapore accepting the jurisdiction of the international court over the death penalty. “Singapore doesn’t adhere to the International Court of Justice so I can’t see any hope,” Mr Downer said.

But Singapore has taken action before the international court over regional territorial disputes. Such a precedent would complicate, politically and morally, any refusal to accept the court’s jurisdiction in this matter.

A senior Australian Government source said the Government was willing to consider what actions might help prevent Nguyen being hanged as scheduled early in the morning on Friday week. He said the issue of Australia going to the international court was being looked into “expeditiously”.

“We will consider this on its merits,” the source said.

Australian officials plan to talk with Nguyen’s legal team, led by the senior counsel Lex Lasry, on potential legal arguments that could be put before the court. One is that mandatory sentencing is a cruel and inhumane punishment.

Singapore has argued decisions on capital punishment are matters of national sovereignty.

A Liberal backbencher, Judi Moylan, who helped organise a petition for Nguyen to be spared, said Australia should mount the court case. “That at least would be a glimmer of hope,” she said.

Mr Howard warned Singapore it should not think the death sentence on Nguyen would go unnoticed in Australia. “We believe there remains a very strong case for clemency given his previously clean record, his co-operation, the fact that he was doing it . Out of concern for the position of his brother,” he said.

While describing it as a “desperately sad case”, Mr Howard said it would not “contaminate our bilateral relationship with Singapore”.

“There is great feeling and there is great conviction in our country that on this occasion the death penalty should not be imposed,” he said. But he rejected calls for an economic boycott of Singapore in retaliation.

The Opposition’s foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, said the Government should make a diplomatic protest over Singapore’s “go jump in the lake” response to representations over Nguyen. He said Nguyen’s mother, Kim, and twin brother – who are due to fly to Singapore this week – would have to communicate with the condemned man through glass. “The Singaporean processes don’t even allow his mum to give him a farewell cuddle,” Mr Rudd said.

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