30 Oct 2005

Australian reporter condemns Singapore's tough stance

It takes a delicate balancing act to match our human rights stance with regional sensitivities, Michelle Grattan writes.

THE imminent hanging - barring a miracle - of the young Australian Nguyen Tuong Van is a horrible and sad human tragedy. But it's more than that.It's the latest example of how capital punishment and lesser-but-excessive sentences for drug crimes in Asia are becoming a serious complication for Australia in its dealings with the region.

The extreme and automatic penalty imposed on Nguyen - for trafficking heroin which he said was to pay for his twin brother's debts - is a jolting reminder of the appalling disregard for human rights in some of our neighbours who are also our friends.

The Schapelle Corby case, fanned by an often feral media, stirred up a lot of negative feeling in this country against Indonesia.While Corby is to serve an inordinately long sentence, it's been clear for some time that Nguyen almost certainly would be executed.

The Howard Government made strong representations, but to no effect.The case highlights, in the starkest terms, the gulf in values between Australia and some of these countries.AdvertisementAdvertisementOf course Australia, too, once had the death penalty (though only for the most serious crime) and in opinion polls many Australians still favour it. But the decision-makers crossed an important moral line and there will be no going back.

Singapore's attitude is barbaric, pure and simple. The report last week of the 73-year-old Singapore executioner, who has put to death more than 850 people and hanged 18 men in one day, was a chilling indictment of an approach to human life that it's hard to believe can exist in a country that's in some ways a model of modernisation.

The Nguyen case is sparking calls that Australia should mount a broad and vigorous international push against the death penalty for such cases.Philip Alston, chief adviser on the death penalty to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, has accused the Australian Government of inconsistency.Alston (brother of former minister Richard) said on Friday that Australia was willing to speak out when international standards on policing terrorism were not met, but did not fight for changes to these mandatory death penalties in drug cases that breach "international legal requirements".

It comes back to choices Australia periodically faces in regional relations. As one Government source puts it: "Asians do some things we wouldn't do. If Australia wants to be the moral policeman, it will be a lonely position."Yet not to do it sees Australia making representations for its own people - that inevitably looks to the region like special pleading, which it is - while dodging the issue of wider human rights abuses.

Howard is not absolutist on capital punishment, although he opposes it for Australia and Australians abroad.Australia's position is that it has no objection to a death penalty for the Bali bombers, which is a mixture of acceptance of Indonesia's sovereignty and a stand of domestic political convenience.After the Nguyen case, the Bali nine drug runners present another nightmare prospect.

If several Australians were sentenced to death there would be a huge domestic outcry (although the feeling is those sentences probably wouldn't be carried out).The Government would be caught between having to apply the maximum pressure while knowing that could be counterproductive, perhaps to the fate of the individuals as well as the wider relationship between the two countries.

The adherence of Indonesia to the death penalty for drug crimes complicates bilateral dealings even short of someone being sentenced.Under Australian law, police can assist overseas authorities in cases up to the point where someone is charged with a crime carrying the death penalty (when help can be given only under strict protocols and to advantage the defendant).

Australian Federal Police is now under sharp criticism for helping its Indonesian counterparts apprehend the Bali nine before they left Indonesia when they could have picked them up after they got off the plane in Australia.Yet for police not to co-operate with their counterparts overseas could prejudice the fight against crime and jeopardise wider co-operative arrangements.

Of course, for Australia and Australians, these problems would not arise if people absorbed the message that there is no mercy for drug offenders in these countries. If any shred of something positive is to come out of recent cases, it can only be that surely they must reinforce this.In the final stages of the Nguyen story, the Prime Minister is under pressure to up the ante. Nguyen's lawyer, Lex Lasry, on Friday urged him to make a "clear statement"."

The Singapore Government would listen carefully if our Prime Minister would say that as a human being and Prime Minister, he did not want this Australian citizen executed," Lasry said.If only it were so. The evidence, however, suggests Singapore is morally deaf and politically immutable on this issue.

Are we game to stand up and be counted on death penalty? - Opinion - smh.com.au


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