October 25, 2005
The impending execution of Nguyen Tuong Van is a travesty of justice and a failure of diplomacy, writes Mark Baker.
AT DAWN on a Friday soon a young Australian will be taken from his death-row cell in the grey colonial pile of Singapore's Changi Prison, fitted with a hood and noose and dropped to oblivion through a gallows trapdoor. A few hours later his broken body will be handed back to his family.
In the island metropolis to our north, a place that admires itself through a polished veneer of modernity and sophistication, the city-state's brand of justice will be delivered with all the subtlety and compassion of the Middle Ages.
Yet few beyond his family, friends and dogged legal team are likely to mourn the passing of Nguyen Tuong Van, convicted heroin trafficker. As one of his Melbourne lawyers, Julian McMahon, observed despairingly at the weekend, Nguyen is not the kind of pretty young Anglo-Saxon damsel whose distress ignites national indignation.
But there are good reasons Australians should be alarmed and angered by the impending execution of the 25-year-old former Melbourne salesman — and why they should be demanding a much more vigorous response from the Federal Government to the final rejection of his plea for clemency than the limp resignation we are now witnessing from John Howard and Alexander Downer.
In short, Nguyen is to be hanged on a pretext that flouts the principles, if not the letter, of international law, after a flawed trial and after a comprehensive diplomatic snub that makes a mockery of the supposedly close political, defence and business friendship between Singapore and Australia.
Nguyen was arrested at Changi Airport in December 2002 after a routine security check revealed 396 grams of heroin strapped to his body and hidden in his hand luggage. Under Singapore law — the harshest in Asia — anyone found with more than 15 grams of heroin is deemed a trafficker and the mandatory sentence is death.
Canberra's increasing ambivalence about capital punishment surely undermined the credibility of its argument.But the verdict that Nguyen was trafficking into Singapore is a nonsense. He was arrested in the airport transit lounge while preparing to board a plane for the second leg of a journey from Cambodia to Australia. He had not passed through Singapore immigration and he had no intention of entering Singapore. Even neighbouring Malaysia — which has hanged three Australians for drug trafficking since the 1980s — acknowledges a legal distinction between people who formally enter a country and those who are merely in transit (those found with drugs in transit face a relatively modest jail sentence).
Nguyen's lawyers did not pursue this obvious defence because the Singapore courts — which adopt the airs and trappings of their British colonial ancestry but are in practice a deeply politicised law unto themselves — have flatly refused such arguments in the past.
The trial itself and the subsequent failed appeal were also flawed. The judges ignored evidence that might well have brought an acquittal in the Australian courts, or other properly independent jurisdictions.
The Singapore judges ignored evidence that the arresting and investigating police had themselves broken the law by denying Nguyen Australian consular support before he was interrogated, and had failed to secure the evidentiary drugs that showed significant and unexplained variations when weighed at different times. No action was taken against a senior police officer who gave contradictory testimony.
The trial judge also brushed aside a compelling defence argument that mandatory death sentences — which have helped create a world's-worst-practice of 400 people executed in Singapore since the early 1990s — are a violation of international human rights standards.
Singapore's mandatory sentencing regime also meant no consideration could be given to mitigating circumstances or the character of the defendant. And there was plenty that should have been heard.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised by a struggling single mother in Melbourne, Nguyen was not a drug addict, a drug trader or even an avaricious "mule" for a drug syndicate. Naive and desperate, he was pressured into making the trip to Cambodia to repay substantial debts owed by his twin brother to loan sharks. Nguyen and his family were threatened before he left Australia.
In the end, Singapore's uncompromising policy on mandatory sentencing made a conviction virtually inevitable, but last week's failure of the petition for a presidential pardon — Nguyen's last lifeline — has raised more disturbing issues.
While the Federal Government gave strenuous support to the application for a pardon, including a personal plea by Howard to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a visit to Singapore earlier this year, Canberra's increasing ambivalence about capital punishment surely undermined the credibility of its argument.
What is left of principle when one day Australia's Government cheers the death penalty for Bali bombers, on another its police assist in sending accused drug runners to face the death penalty abroad and the next it tries to argue against a hanging on humanitarian grounds?
The refusal of a pardon to Nguyen, dictated by the Singapore cabinet, now stands as a stinging diplomatic rebuff to Howard personally and Australia as a whole. And this from a nation that is supposed to be our best friend in South-East Asia and the neighbour with which we have the strongest strategic, commercial and personal links.
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister now solemnly shake their heads and lament there is nothing more that can be done. But there is plenty that can be done by Australians who believe state-sanctioned killing — however odious the crime — has no place in a civilised society.
They can boycott Singapore-owned companies such as Optus and Singapore Airlines, they can take their shopping holidays elsewhere, they can protest against the thousands of Singapore military who train on Australian soil and they can start flying to Europe via Bangkok — not a bad idea when a visit to the transit lounge at Changi Airport can finish in a cell at Changi prison.
Mark Baker is opinion editor. He was Asia editor, based in Singapore, from 2001 to 2004 and reported the arrest and trial of Nguyen Tuong Van.