Singaporean Execution Condemned

Friends of Nguyen Tuong Van place candles during an early vigil Friday outside the Changi prison in Singapore. (Photo: Bob Low / AFP-Getty Images)

Australia’s attorney general, Philip Ruddock, has described the hanging of convicted Australian drug smuggler Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore as “barbaric” saying the Singaporean government’s decision to ignore all pleas for leniency was “even worse in this case because issues of mitigation could not be taken into account.”

Ruddock made his comments to Sky News after the 25-year-old Melbourne man was hanged Friday for attempting to smuggle nearly 400 grams of heroin through Singapore’s Changi airport in 2002. According to his defense lawyers, Nguyen had agreed to smuggle the heroin to Australia to pay off the debts incurred by his twin brother Khoa, who is a former drug addict.

Under Singapore’s harsh anti-drug laws, the death penalty is mandatory for trafficking over 15 grams of heroin. Though official statistics are shrouded in secrecy, Amnesty International has estimated that over 400 executions have taken place in Singapore between 1991 and 2003 making it one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world.

The execution came despite a sustained campaign in Australia from church groups, human rights activists, the media and politicians to pressure the Singaporean authorities to commute the death sentence. The decision to ignore clemency pleas, which included personal representations from Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to their Singaporean counterparts, has damaged relations between the two nations according to Howard.

“I have told the prime minister of Singapore that I believe it will have an effect on the relationship on a people to people, population to population basis,” said the Prime Minister on Melbourne radio station 3AW. However, he ruled out economic sanctions:

“The government itself is not going to take punitive measures against the government of Singapore, I do not support at an official level boycotts and things of that kind and it will not be the government’s policy to do that. There’s nothing to be gained by that in my opinion,” Howard said.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, speaking in Berlin following his meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel replied that, though his government had carefully considered the numerous requests for clemency, he had decided, “the law should take its course.” Officials have justified the harsh drug laws as an attempt to deter drug cartels from using the island state as a base for drug trafficking.

The long and emotional campaign in Australia to gain clemency for Nguyen has galvanized Australians against the death penalty in general according to Amnesty International’s anti-death penalty coordinator Tim Goodwin.

“Well, I think today was clearly a very sad day for human rights and a very sad day, of course, for Van Nguyen and his family. And the mood was reflected at these events — it was somber, it was reflective. I think I’ve never seen a protest quite like it in all my years of working on human rights,” said Goodwin on the ABC’s Lateline program.

“We’ve [also] been sensing a real mood of determination among people, that’s been growing over the last few weeks. People are determined not only to protest against this execution as it was carried out, but also to stay involved in an ongoing campaign against the death penalty in the region.” Goodwin said.

However, though the death penalty was abolished in Australia in 1985, recent opinion polls have shown Australians sharply divided on whether capital punishment should be re-introduced. Prime Minister Howard has trod the fine line between the two camps by expressing his outrage at Nguyen’s hanging yet supporting the death penalty for convicted Bali bomber Amrozi, who was convicted for his part in the killing of 202 Westerners including 88 Australians in a Bali nightclub bombing attack in 2002.

Speaking on Melbourne radio in 2003 following the conviction of Amrozi, Howard said, “I know lots of Australians who believe that a death penalty is appropriate and they are not barbaric, they’re not insensitive, they’re not vindictive, they’re not vengeful, they are people who believe that if you take another’s life deliberately then justice requires that you’re life be taken.”

Both Nguyen’s brother and mother were at the prison on the day of his execution though denied physical contact during their last visits. Prison officials allowed Nguyen to hold his mother’s hand before the hanging after the Singaporean Foreign Office accepted a personal plea by the Australian prime minister.

Nguyen’s body was flown back to Australia on Sunday for burial.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Rich Bowden.