27 Jul 2004
Singapore defers judgment of Australian drug trafficker
2004-07-27 / Associated Press /
Singapore's appeals court reserved judgment yesterday in a death-penalty case against an Australian convicted of smuggling heroin, saying it wants more time to look at evidence - especially why the drugs had different weights when tested by police and a lab.
The decision by the three-judge panel to defer judgment against Nguyen Tuong Van - who faces the gallows if his appeal fails and the president doesn't grant clemency - means legal proceedings will be extended days or weeks in a case that dates from December 2002.
Chief Justice Yong Pung How told the court that the discrepancy in drug weight "has never happened before" in such a case.
"Admittedly it is only a marginal difference, but we have to be very careful," Yong said.
Nguyen, 23, a salesman from Melbourne, was arrested December 12, 2002 at Changi International Airport in transit between Cambodia and Australia. During a routine passenger search, officers found Nguyen was carrying two packets of heroin, one taped to his back and a second in his bag.
When weighed at the airport by police, Nguyen's two packets weighed 381.66 grams and 380.36 grams, according to the written judgment of Judge Kan Ting Chui, who heard Nguyen's case.
But when weighed later at a lab, the packets weighed 361.64 grams and 370.94 grams respectively, according to the same written judgment, dated March 20, 2004.
"We will wait and see what happens," Lex Lasry, Nguyen's Australian attorney, said outside the courtroom.
Singapore has some of Asia's toughest anti-drug laws, including a mandatory death penalty for anyone convicted of possessing more than 15 grams of pure heroin.
Chief Justice Yong heard the appeal yesterday, along with judges Chao Hick Tin and Lai Kew Chai. Among those watching was Nguyen's mother, Kim, who fled Vietnam in 1980 by boat.
Nguyen's Singapore lawyers, Joseph Theseira and Tito Isaac, had submitted on July 15 written arguments detailing why Nguyen's conviction should be overturned.
In court yesterday, Theseira summarized these, including the issue of the drugs' differing weights, and Singapore's use of the mandatory death penalty.
Nguyen's case - should he lose his appeal - could complicate ties between Canberra and Singapore, which normally enjoy a close diplomatic relationship.
Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has called for Nguyen's life to be spared.
Singapore's government routinely defends the country's use of the gallows although it has yet to comment on Nguyen's case. It argues hanging criminals convicted of serious offenses sends a strong message to other would-be offenders.