27 Oct 2005

Downer: Don't execute Australian

From CNN

CANBERRA, Australia (Reuters) -- The Australian government will make a final plea to Singapore to spare the life of an Australian due to be executed for drug smuggling, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has said.

Nguyen Tuong Van, 25, was sentenced to death in March 2004 after being convicted for smuggling almost 400 grams (0.9 lb) of heroin from Cambodia. He was arrested at Singapore's Changi Airport in December 2002, where he was in transit for Australia.

The Singapore government last week rejected Nguyen's final plea for clemency, despite intense lobbying from Australia over the past 18 months.

"I think it's worth getting in touch again with the Singapore government, expressing our enormous disappointment at the decision they've made," Downer told reporters.

He said he would ask Singapore to reconsider the death penalty because Nguyen had cooperated fully with police since his arrest, and because he was willing to give evidence against those responsible for drug trafficking.

Australia is a staunch opponent of the death penalty but Singapore, known for its tough stand against crime, mandates the death penalty for murder and drug trafficking.

Singapore has not disclosed the date of Nguyen's execution, but lawyers told Reuters that hangings are usually carried out three weeks after a clemency appeal is rejected.

Nguyen admitted he acted as a drugs courier, but only to help his twin brother pay off the equivalent of $19,000 in debts to loan sharks.

Nguyen's Melbourne-based lawyer, Lex Lasry, and human rights group Amnesty International have condemned the death penalty and called on the Singapore government to reconsider its decision.

"To now hang him in those circumstances, when he has done everything he can to make up for his conduct, is a grievous injustice. It may be tough as far as Singapore is concerned, but it is grossly unfair," Lasry told reporters in Canberra.

Capital punishment in the city-state has long been shrouded in silence, with little public debate about the issue and even less information on how the process is carried out.

"Families are left in a state of complete anxiety and lack of knowledge until very late in the day," said M.Ravi, a lawyer who has handled death penalty cases.

The executions are generally carried out at Changi prison, in the island's leafy eastern suburbs, and take place at the pre-dawn hour of 0600 (2200 GMT) on Fridays.

In a 2004 report Amnesty International said about 400 people had been hanged in Singapore since 1991, mostly for drug trafficking, giving the state of 4.2 million people the highest execution rate in the world relative to its population.

Nguyen will be the first Australian executed for drugs charges since 1993, if the sentence is carried out.

Two other Australians, Mai Cong Thanh, 46, and Nguyen Van Chinh, 45, remain on death row in Vietnam after being convicted for drug smuggling.

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