21 Oct 2004

An Australian faces Singapore's gallows

The Age

October 21, 2004

The death penalty is unconscionable, no matter what the crime.

Nguyen Tuong Van is a foolish young man. He took an extraordinary risk in an attempt to repay a drug-related debt incurred by his twin brother. He will now, most likely, pay for that debt with his life. Singapore's Court of Appeal yesterday rejected an appeal against a mandatory death sentence imposed on Nguyen in March for drug trafficking. In December 2002, the 24-year-old Melbourne man was arrested as he attempted to pass through Changi Airport en route from Cambodia to Australia. Strapped to his body and concealed in his luggage was 396 grams of heroin. The death penalty has been mandatory in Singapore since 1975 for anyone found with more than 15 grams of the drug. Execution is by hanging and Nguyen could earn the unenviable distinction of becoming the first Australian citizen to be executed in the island nation. His only hope now is a plea for clemency to Singapore President S. R. Nathan. Clemency is rarely granted in a country that has executed more than 400 people since 1991. Most of those hanged have been drug traffickers. The Singaporean Government does not publish statistics about death sentences or executions. It is not known how many prisoners are on death row. What is known is that Singapore has one of the highest per capita execution rates in the world, surpassing even China, which is responsible for about 85 per cent of the world's judicial executions.

In Australia, the death penalty was finally abolished when Western Australia removed it from the statute books in 1984. The last person to be executed in this country was Ronald Ryan, hanged at Pentridge Prison in 1967, although other Australians have since been executed overseas. There is little evidence to suggest that a continuation or resumption of the death penalty would in any way have acted as a deterrent against serious crimes in Australia. The homicide rate nationwide remains relatively stable. The Singaporean experience has been that capital punishment has scarcely had an impact on drug trafficking. In Texas, the United States jurisdiction in which more executions are carried out than any other, there has actually been an increase in the number of homicides in recent years.

There have been flashes of ambivalence in the attitude of Australians to capital punishment in recent years. Outrages such as the Bali bombings have served to refocus public attention on the issue. But the lesson of the abolition debates in Australia last century was clear: taking one life for even the most heinous of crimes in no way upholds or protects the value of all human life. The Age remains opposed to the death penalty, both here and overseas. The Australian Government has already made entreaties on Nguyen's behalf. It must continue to remind Singapore that judicial executions are an unconscionable violation of human rights that no truly civilised nation ought to condone.


Anonymous said...

Who cares about execution as a deterrent? It is more like taking out the garbage. Singapore - do not back down in the face of the whining bleeding heart liberals. Hang him.

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