2 Nov 2005

Nguyen could be spared, argues Singaporean lawyer

This is a transcript from The World Today. The program is broadcast around Australia at 12:10pm on ABC Local Radio.

You can also listen to the story in REAL AUDIO and WINDOWS MEDIA and MP3 formats.

The World Today
- Wednesday, 2 November , 2005 12:30:00
Reporter: Eleanor Hall
ELEANOR HALL: A Singaporean lawyer who's acted for two death row prisoners says while diplomatic channels have now closed for the Australian drug trafficker Van Nguyen, there is still hope he can be spared execution through a legal appeal.

Mr M Ravi, a human rights lawyer who made Singapore's death penalty a front-page issue when he represented a Singaporean athlete on death row, says while Van Nguyen has only about 10 days to go before he's likely to be executed, that is time enough to lodge the appeal.

And Mr Ravi says if it's successful, the case could overthrow the death penalty in Singapore altogether.

He spoke to me from Singapore earlier today.

ELEANOR HALL: Mr Ravi, do you think the Australian Government has done all it can to try to save Van Nguyen?

M RAVI: I think the Australian Government has tried its utmost at this point, but from now they have to realise that, and also the Australian public must realise that diplomatic channel has come to a dead-end, and we are looking at a prospective execution from the two cases I dealt with before – 11th of November must be the cut-off date that they must look at. There must be some timeframe they have to work, because execution takes place three weeks from the last date where announcement is made on the rejection of the clemency.

But what is important right now is to exhaust other avenues that are available. One, the legal avenues are not closed. In particular, I would like to cite that the Court of Appeal in Van's case, the court said that it is now open to an accused to show through experts and international law that a mandatory death sentence is cruel and inhuman punishment under customary international law. Therefore, there is light on this path, and this commentary was taken from one of the eminent former High Court judicial commissioner, as well as a senior counsel.

The Court of Appeal has said very clearly that if you can show through international law that mandatory death sentence is cruel and inhuman, we will have judicial discretion and stave off the execution.

ELEANOR HALL: So what do you think the Australian Government should be doing in this light then?

M RAVI: What the Australian Government should do is that… ask what they can do is that to appeal to his advanced counsel to instruct the counsel in Singapore – and I am prepared to do this matter pro-bono, that I've always done – or any other lawyers whom they think deem fit to canvas this point.

So therefore, there's a resumé and case law have already developed in this point, and this can be canvassed before the court. In fact, that could be a first case of, you know, the first case to begin and end to the death penalty in Singapore. There's a brilliant window of opportunity opened there. I don't know why the lawyers are not using this.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, you've also made your own appeal to the President of Singapore. You raise the case of a British man extradited to Singapore from Australia. Why is this case relevant?

M RAVI: This case is relevant because what we have been arguing for in Singapore is the courts should have judicial discretion, you know, in death sentences.

You know, in this instance, in particular, that executive discretion had been exercised, ie. the Singapore Government even before the case had commenced in the court, I mean McCrea's case of…

ELEANOR HALL: This is the British man?

M RAVI: British man, British national, who was resident or illegal immigrant in Australia, the Singapore Government had given an undertaking that they will grant basically clemency, even before the case had gone to the courts, and even before the clemency had been formally submitted. If they could give executive discretion could be exercised, why are they, why the same is not applied to Van? Therefore, he is prejudicially treated.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, what response have you received from the President to your appeal?

M RAVI: The President has not written to me, and the last two occasions when I've written similar petitions to the President, the President has just one-liner say that, you know, we do not accede to your request, full-stop.

ELEANOR HALL: If the President has so far not responded, what course of action will you now take?

M RAVI: What I would like the Australian community to do right now is to approach United Nations and file a complaint with the UN rapporteur for extra-judicial and summary executions, and asking the Singapore Government – the UN can ask the Singapore Government to stave off the execution, pending an inquiry into this matter, before it's too late.

ELEANOR HALL: Why would the Singaporean Government listen to Australia or any other member of the international community making that point, when its argument is that it weighs the rights of the prisoner against the rights of the Singaporean community?

M RAVI: Because there is already a movement forward towards this process, and given the fact that Caribbean lawyers from London have gone into Commonwealth countries and abolished death penalty through this kind of legal arguments and all that, why don't we look at all these avenues?

Of course, this is normal process should be exhausted. But what is very important is the other avenues, which seemingly seems to not to get addressed by the Australian media or the Australian Government. I don't understand why.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, you've acted for two death row prisoners…

M RAVI: Right.

ELEANOR HALL: … What's it like for these people waiting on death row?

M RAVI: Ah… it's um, extremely excruciating an experience, because in particular the fact that the last day of the week they will give a letter on the Monday saying that, you know, from Tuesday to Thursday, preceding the execution on Friday that you can visit, you know, from nine o'clock to five o'clock, and also the letter also has a line that says that please make the funeral arrangements, necessary funeral arrangements on Friday, failing which the state will conduct its state funeral.

So having that letter and receiving it in a very nonchalant or blasé way the prison authorities usually treat these matters, so having taken that and going and visiting the prisoners, it's very, very inhumane and very painful.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, Mr Ravi, at this stage, how do you rate the Australian prisoner Van Nguyen's chances of survival?

M RAVI: Diplomatic channels are completely closed at this moment. It's come to a dead-end. One has not, one must not delude oneself. I think if all the other avenues that I have stated, the legal avenues as well as the International Court of Justice, as well as the United Nations process, should kick off, and if this kicks off, I think he has a good chance, I would say.

ELEANOR HALL: And that's Singaporean human rights lawyer, Mr M Ravi.

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