1 Feb 2005

Singapore considers clemency for Melbourne man

Nguyen Tuong Van faces the death penalty

By South East Asia correspondent Peter Lloyd

The Singaporean Government says it will consider an appeal for clemency by an Australian man on death row for heroin trafficking.

But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has defended the country's tough stance on drug crime during a meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Mr Howard said he would use a 45-minute meeting with the Singapore leader to highlight what he called the compassionate circumstances in the case of Melbourne man Van Tuong Nguyen.

The 24-year-old was arrested in December 2002 at Singapore airport trying smuggle 400 grams of heroin on board a Qantas flight.

During his trial, Van claimed he was carrying the drug to help pay off legal bills incurred by his twin brother.

But under Singapore law, anyone caught with more than 15 grams of heroin faces a mandatory death penalty, regardless of the circumstances.

Mr Lee said the Government would consider the case for clemency.

But Singapore has proven repeatedly that foreigners are not exempt from its execution laws.


mis_nomer said...

I hope he gets clemency, but it isn't fair either if he gets off and one of our local guys gets sent to the gallows. The death penalty needs a serious relook. Death for more than 15g of heroin? Surely that is cruel and unusual punishment?

But I've a legit question: you know how our justice system is based on "innoncent until proven guilty"? When they find you with the drugs, isn't it "guilty until proven innocent" instead as the onus is on you to prove that the drugs were not put in your bag by mistake? Someone please explain. Or is having the drugs sufficient "proof" of guilt?

fruitsyrup said...

Ok, this is going to be completely irrelevant to the post above but Steven... Hello!!!!! Because you were my Sociology lecturer when i was in Year One! :)

soci said...

mis-nomer, you have raised an issue that is at the heart of the judicial process regarding drug trafficking and the MANDATORY nature of the death penalty.

soci said...

hello fruitsyrup, I hope you are well and how long ago were you in my class?

fruitsyrup said...

Just about 2 years ago :) I trust you are well. It was a big surprise to see your face popping up when i went blog-a-hop.

True Flight said...

I have some past experience working in the heart of the Singapore criminal legal system and would like to share some thoughts.

Firstly, 15g of heroin is probably not as little as you think it is. When the law refers to 15g of heroin, it is referring to the net weight of pure heroin in the confiscated drugs.

In street form, 15 grammes of heroin does not mean two finger-pinches worth of white powder. More likely, it means two packets of drugs each as large as, say, a very large bag of Calbee prawn crackers (although this varies seasonally according to the "cut" and quality of the drug).

The next time you think about 15 grammes of heroin, compare it to the medication you take. Your average Vitamin C tablet has 250 mg of Vitamin C. That is to say, 0.25 grammes. 15 grammes of Vitamin C is sixty (60) tablets. And your tablet is already highly concentrated (unlike relatively "raw" forms of heroin sold illegal).

All said and done, I'm not a big fan of the death sentence.

True Flight said...

As for the question about legal presumptions of guilt - this is more technical than most laymen can easily grasp. But I will attempt to explain.

The basic position is that an accused person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This has implications which the lay public is often not aware of.

One key implication is that the accused person does NOT have to explain anything, does not have to state his side of his story AT ALL, unless the prosecution has first produced basic evidence to support each part of the charge.

Normally, this works fine. For some types of crimes, however, the practical difficulties are insurmountable. For example, suppose at midnight, outside a bar, the police arrest a person found behaving strangely, and the persons's urine is tested, and it is found to contain heroin.

This is not at all enough to sustain a conviction. (We don't know that he actually intentionally consumed heroin - perhaps someone poisoned him? perhaps he consumed heroin accidentally?)

Even worse, the prosecution is not allowed to question the accused in court. The prosecution is not allowed to ask the accused the most basic question, eg, "Why is there heroin in your urine?"

That is because the accused is presumed innocent. Innocent people don't have to explain a thing. Their urine may be swirling with heroin, but they don't have to explain a thing. They just sit in court and smile at everyone.

Using a bit of common sense, we know of course that the reality is that most of the time, if people have heroin in their urine, then they have consumed it intentionally. That is why Parliament passed laws to say that if your urine is tested positive for heroin, you're presumed to have taken it intentionally.

The presumption, of course, doesn't mean you're guilty. It is only a presumption. It merely means that the prosecution is now entitled to ask the accused person questions in court:

"Why were you acting strangely outside that bar?"
"Did you take any illegal drugs?"
"Can you explain why heroin is detected in your urine?"

And it means that the accused actually has to answer those questions.

"Oh, I was in a room, and a big bunch of people grabbed me and forced me to take heroin. I don't know who they are, and they have all disappeared now."

Yeah right. Well, who knows. The questions will go on, and the judge will decide.

mis_nomer said...

Thank you for taking time to answer my question GK. Your clarification about the 15 grams is helpful too.

It makes sense now that in the case of drugs the prosecution is given the right to ask questions that presume the party is guilty. Do you know if this is the case all over the world? I am just wondering if there is a working model somewhere else. What happens elsewhere, when someone is caught with drugs?

Also, I assume this presumption of guilt also extends to say, if you are found with contraband cigarettes, or a cage of exotic red-bottomed monkeys?

True Flight said...

I'm not able to say how common such presumptions are in other countries. However I am able to give you examples of such presumptions in some other parts of Singapore's criminal law.

Suppose you drink alcohol, and you drive, and you're caught, and a blood test or a breathalyser test is done. If the test shows that the alcohol concentration in your breath/blood exceeds a certain percentage X, then you are presumed to be drunk.

If I recall my law correctly, you are not only presumed to be drunk, but you are IRREBUTABLY presumed to be drunk. This means that it is useless for you to raise arguments like, "Oh I can easily drink an entire bottle of vodka and still drive perfectly well".

The judge is simply not permitted to take such arguments into consideration. As long as a certain level of alcohol concentration is exceeded, you are presumed to be drunk, even though it may be true that you were driving perfectly well and that you normally can drink an entire bottle of vodka and still be sober.

Note that you may just as well be convicted of drunk driving even if your alcohol concentration did not reach X. For example, say you are a lousy drinker. You drink only half a mug of beer. However, when you start driving, you veer all over the place, swerving from lane to lane, and finally crash into a tree. Your alcohol concentration is still well below X, but your particular brain obviously is easily affected even by a little alcohol. Thus the prosecution is able to bring charges against you for drunk driving, but they will not be able to rely on the presumption. Instead the prosecution will adduce evidence to prove the offence - for example, eyewitness evidence to show that you could not even drive straight; and the police officer's statement that he smelt alcohol on your breath.

Anonymous said...

So 15 grams isn't as litte as it seems. Excellent explanation GK, I think this casts Nguyen in a different light. What is the street value of the drugs? Was he making just enough to cover his brother's debts, or was he going to profit a lot from it? Putting his picture masks the severity of his deeds.

I am against human beings justifying selling drugs to other human beings on the grounds that they really needed the money. I hope for his sake that he escapes the gallows, but let's face it that he's no poor little teen who did this in a moment's folly.