23 Oct 2004

Amnesty, Australia ask Singapore

Agence France Presse
October 21, 2004

HUMAN rights group Amnesty International and the Australian government urged Singapore Thursday, Oct 21, to spare the life of an Australian man sentenced to hang for heroin trafficking.

Amnesty, a strong critic of the death penalty system in Singapore, urged the city state -- said to have the world's highest number of executions relative to its population -- to grant clemency to Nguyen Tuong Van.

Singapore's highest court on Wednesday rejected Nguyen's appeal to set aside his conviction and sentence. Only a rare clemency from Singapore's President Sellapan Ramanathan. Nathan could spare him from the gallows, the only form of execution here.

The 24-year-old ethnic Vietnamese from Melbourne will be the first Australian citizen to be executed in Singapore if he fails to get his sentence commuted to a prison term.

"Clearly Amnesty International is dismayed that the appeal has been turned down," Tim Goodwin, spokesman for Amnesty International Australia, told AFP by telephone. "We are calling on the Singapore government to grant clemency."

In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Thursday the government would appeal directly to Singapore's president to spare Nguyen's life.

Downer said while he accepted the court's decision that Nguyen was guilty, Australia opposed capital punishment.

"It's now just a question of the sentence, and we hope that, by appealing to the president of Singapore, that it will be possible to get clemency granted and, as a result, Mr Nguyen serve an appropriate custodial sentence in Singapore," Downer said in a radio interview.

"We think that to execute him would be simply too severe," Downer said.

Downer acknowledged that the request for presidential clemency was a long shot, as Singapore has granted only six appeals in the past 25 years.

"It is an outside chance ... but we'll just do what we can," he said.

Amnesty in a report last January singled out Singapore for executing more people than any country per capita and renewed calls for it to abolish the death penalty.

It said more than 400 convicts, many of them foreign migrant workers, were executed in Singapore, which has just over four million people, from 1991 to October 2003.

Nguyen was arrested at Singapore's Changi airport while in transit from Cambodia to Australia in December 2002 and convicted for smuggling almost 400 grams (14 ounces) of heroin.

Singapore made the death penalty mandatory for drug traffickers and murderers in 1975. Anyone caught with more than 15 grams of heroin in Singapore is assumed to be importing or trafficking the drug.

In its ruling Wednesday rejecting Nguyen's appeal to set aside his conviction, Singapore's Court of Appeal said the death penalty was constitutional and hanging did not amount to cruel and inhuman punishment.

"It was clear that he wanted to earn money by transporting drugs," the ruling said. "He flew to Phnom Penh, where members of a drug syndicate provided him with the heroin for transportation via Singapore."


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