27 Oct 2005

Letters from death row

"Something inside him sparkles" ... Kelly Ng, left, and Bronwyn Lew on their friend, Nguyen Tuong Van, who has written to them almost every week from death row.
Photo: Jason South

Let us not allow the Singaporean government to continue ignoring this case. This is not some dehumanised matter of crime statistics and theoretical arguments. Send urgent appeals.

By Steve Butcher and Craig Skehan of smh.com.au
October 27, 2005

"For myself, I only pray for courage," writes Nguyen Tuong Van.

From his cell in Singapore's Changi Prison, the condemned Australian seeks the virtue many say he already possesses.

As his execution looms, Nguyen prays for God to watch over his family and friends, particularly his mother, Kim Nguyen, who collapsed yesterday while speaking to reporters.

Nguyen recently wrote to his close friend, Kelly Ng, that he did not want to die, "but I know where I'm going and I know how much God loves us all".

Intimate fragments of his thoughts in maximum security were released yesterday as an emotional Ms Ng read Nguyen's letters. "I only ask for what I need and not once have I been disappointed, ever," he wrote to her.

"But then, again, I only ask Him to watch over you all and love you all as much as He has loved me. As for myself, I only pray for courage, lest God's will be done."

Last Friday Nguyen, 25, lost his last legal hope of clemency when the President, S. R. Nathan, was advised to refuse his plea.

He was sentenced to death in March last year after being stopped in transit at Changi Airport in December 2002, carrying 396 grams of heroin as he ran to catch a Qantas flight to Melbourne.

Nguyen told police he agreed to act as a courier for a Sydney syndicate to help pay legal debts owed by his twin brother.

As frantic efforts mount to save his life, Ms Ng and another of his close friends, Bronwyn Lew, spoke how "there's just something inside him that just sparkles".

The women, who have visited Nguyen many times since his arrest, revealed how the warders regarded him as the most admired inmate in Changi.

"Everyone is in love with him over there," Ms Lew said.

In a letter written last week, Nguyen tells of the impending execution of his closest friend on death row. He warns the loss of "my dear friend" may affect later letters and how "it breaks my heart because there is only so much I can do for him".

He writes: "He's asked me a long time ago to write his last letter to his family."

Just hours before Nguyen was told last week his clemency had failed, the friend was hanged.

Nguyen had befriended and counselled many prisoners who have been executed in his 19 months on death row.

Both Ms Ng and Ms Lew said Nguyen had the ability to comfort his fellow inmates. Nguyen encouraged Ms Ng last month to "let any emotions out [because] I want you to let them out when I'm here with you."

The Opposition's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, yesterday called for clemency, saying it would be "abhorrent" if Nguyen were hanged.

He made the plea after meeting Singapore's high commissioner, Joseph Koh. "I spoke to him in the most direct terms about our request that the Singaporean cabinet extend an act of clemency to this young Australian man," Mr Rudd said.

"For us in Australia, in the Australian Labor Party, we find all forms of capital punishment abhorrent."

Federal Labor's president, Barry Jones, said yesterday Labor had not done enough to help Nguyen. In a speech in which he urged his party to show more courage, he said: "We seem to have gone quiet on our longstanding rejection of the death penalty, one of our oldest political commitments."

A petition for Nguyen's release has been circulated round the Federal Parliament and Amnesty International has begun a worldwide campaign to save him.

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