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Singapore’s deadly sling
25 Oct 05
The impending execution of Nguyen Tuong Van is a travesty of justice and a failure of diplomacy
At dawn on a Friday soon a young Australian will be taken from his death-row cell in the grey colonial pile of Singapore’s Changi Prison, fitted with a hood and noose and dropped to oblivion through a gallows trapdoor. A few hours later his broken body will be handed back to his family.
In the island metropolis to our north, a place that admires itself through a polished veneer of modernity and sophistication, the city-state’s brand of justice will be delivered with all the subtlety and compassion of the Middle Ages.
Yet few beyond his family, friends and dogged legal team are likely to mourn the passing of Nguyen Tuong Van, convicted heroin trafficker. As one of his Melbourne lawyers, Julian McMahon, observed despairingly at the weekend, Nguyen is not the kind of pretty young Anglo-Saxon damsel whose distress ignites national indignation.
But there are good reasons Australians should be alarmed and angered by the impending execution of the 25-year-old former Melbourne salesman – and why they should be demanding a much more vigorous response from the Federal Government to the final rejection of his plea for clemency than the limp resignation we are now witnessing from John Howard and Alexander Downer.
In short, Nguyen is to be hanged on a pretext that flouts the principles, if not the letter, of international law, after a flawed trial and after a comprehensive diplomatic snub that makes a mockery of the supposedly close political, defence and business friendship between Singapore and Australia.
Nguyen was arrested at Changi Airport in December 2002 after a routine security check revealed 396 grams of heroin strapped to his body and hidden in his hand
luggage. Under Singapore law – the harshest in Asia – anyone found with more than 15 grams of heroin is deemed a trafficker and the mandatory sentence is death.
Canberra’s increasing ambivalence about capital punishment surely undermined the credibility of its argument. But the verdict that Nguyen was trafficking into Singapore is a nonsense. He was arrested in the airport transit lounge while preparing to board a
plane for the second leg of a journey from Cambodia to Australia. He had not passed through Singapore immigration and he had no intention of entering Singapore. Even neighbouring Malaysia – which has hanged three Australians for drug trafficking since the 1980s – acknowledges a legal distinction between people who formally enter a country and those who are merely in transit (those found with drugs in transit face a relatively modest jail sentence).
Nguyen’s lawyers did not pursue this obvious defence because the Singapore courts – which adopt the airs and trappings of their British colonial ancestry but are in practice a deeply politicised law unto themselves – have flatly refused such arguments in the past.
The trial itself and the subsequent failed appeal were also flawed. The judges ignored evidence that might well have brought an acquittal in the Australian courts, or other properly independent jurisdictions.
The Singapore judges ignored evidence that the arresting and investigating police had themselves broken the law by denying Nguyen Australian consular support before he was interrogated, and had failed to secure the evidentiary drugs that showed significant and unexplained variations when weighed at different times. No action was taken against a senior police officer who gave contradictory testimony.
The trial judge also brushed aside a compelling defence argument that mandatory death sentences – which have helped create a world’s-worst-practice of 400 people executed in Singapore since the early 1990s – are a violation of international human rights standards.
Singapore’s mandatory sentencing regime also meant no consideration could be given to mitigating circumstances or the character of the defendant. And there was plenty that should have been heard.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised by a struggling single mother in Melbourne, Nguyen was not a drug addict, a drug trader or even an avaricious “mule” for a drug syndicate. Naive and desperate, he was pressured into making the trip to Cambodia to repay substantial debts owed by his twin brother to loan sharks. Nguyen and his family were threatened before he left Australia.
In the end, Singapore’s uncompromising policy on mandatory sentencing made a conviction virtually inevitable, but last week’s failure of the petition for a presidential pardon – Nguyen’s last lifeline – has raised more disturbing issues.
While the Federal Government gave strenuous support to the application for a pardon, including a personal plea by Howard to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
during a visit to Singapore earlier this year, Canberra’s increasing ambivalence about capital punishment surely undermined the credibility of its argument.
What is left of principle when one day Australia’s Government cheers the death penalty for Bali bombers, on another its police assist in sending accused drug runners to face the death penalty abroad and the next it tries to argue against a hanging on humanitarian grounds?
The refusal of a pardon to Nguyen, dictated by the Singapore cabinet, now stands as a stinging diplomatic rebuff to Howard personally and Australia as a whole. And this from a nation that is supposed to be our best friend in South-East Asia and the neighbour with which we have the strongest strategic, commercial and personal links.
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister now solemnly shake their heads and lament there is nothing more that can be done. But there is plenty that can be done by Australians who believe state-sanctioned killing – however odious the crime – has no place in a civilised society.
They can boycott Singapore-owned companies such as Optus and Singapore Airlines, they can take their shopping holidays elsewhere, they can protest against the thousands of Singapore military who train on Australian soil and they can start flying to Europe via Bangkok – not a bad idea when a visit to the transit lounge at Changi Airport can finish in a cell at Changi prison.
Mark Baker is opinion editor. He was Asia editor, based in Singapore, from 2001 to 2004 and reported the arrest and trial of Nguyen Tuong Van.
Death in Singapore
Nguyen Tuong Van made a terrible mistake, but he does not deserve to die for it. An educated, industrious young man, with no criminal record, he foolishly agreed to act as a “mule” for a drug syndicate, in a misguided attempt to drag his brother free of debt. He was arrested in transit at Singapore’s Changi airport in possession of almost 400g of heroin. For such a crime, which Nguyen does not deny, the mandatory sentence in Singapore is death. With his final application for clemency rejected, the young man from Melbourne could hang within weeks, possibly days.
Singapore is hard on illegal drugs, and with good reason. It has seen the role drugs have played in keeping some of its Southeast Asian neighbours mired in poverty and corruption, and has avoided that fate. Singapore has been even more successful than the other original tiger economies – Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan – in terms of
affluence and stability, but it has not developed as a liberal society. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in its enthusiasm for the death penalty. Singapore has hanged more than 400 people during the past 15 years. And this has occurred during a period when international opinion has swung strongly against capital punishment.
A quarter-century ago, almost two-thirds of the world’s 195 countries still had the death penalty on their statute books. Now it is banned in 111 countries. Like Australia, these countries recognise that the death penalty is barbaric, fails the test of being a reliable deterrent, and is vulnerable to the worst possible kind of mistake: the taking of an innocent life. But we will not save Nguyen by lecturing Singapore on these matters, or by stridency of any kind. When former prime minister Bob Hawke intervened in the case of two condemned Australians in Malaysia, Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, in 1986, by denouncing the death penalty as barbaric, he surely meant well – only, he very likely did harm, antagonising former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The usual suspects have cynically used Nguyen’s case to bash the Howard Government for a supposedly lukewarm campaign on his behalf, and the Australian people generally for their supposed neglect of Nguyen’s plight. They have even suggested that racism is involved. This is nonsense. It is true the case of Schapelle Corby aroused more public feeling than that of Nguyen. But far from reflecting racism, this reflects the fact that, there, the issue was whether a completely innocent person had been framed. In fact, the Howard Government has made strong and persistent representations on Nguyen’s behalf, including at a one-on-one level between John Howard and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. To Mr Howard’s voice have been added those of church leaders and the federal Opposition.
The low-key character of this effort has nothing to do with the cold-heartedness or racism of Australians, and everything to do with the desire on the part of Nguyen’s legal team to avoid a counter-productive brawl with the Singaporeans. Nobody could be left unmoved by the plight of Nguyen, whose punishment is so out of proportion to his crime, or by the suffering of his mother, Kim. She literally worked day and night to raise her twin boys here, all by herself, after they arrived as refugees from Vietnam. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has already prepared us for the worst, but the duty of the Government is to keep the diplomatic pressure on Singapore and to continue pressing the case for clemency. Ordinary Australians are not, in the slightest, indifferent to Nguyen, but there is little they can offer him now apart from their hopes and their prayers.