Death Penalty: NGUYEN, Vietnamese refugee-cum-scout

Posted by Sinapan Samydorai under Breaking News on 27 March 2004

Death for NGUYEN Tuong Van was disproportionate given the nature of his crime, his youth, lack of criminal history and the chance for rehabilitation. The Think Centre opposes the death penalty as a violation of the right to life and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Think Centre urges both Court and the President to commute the death sentence and to seek a more humane way to overcome the problem.

"There is no question that our client is a small fish and he's being sentenced to death in circumstances where he has not had the opportunity to say to a court why in this particular case the death sentence is not proportionate to his criminality," Barrister Lex Lasry, QC

Australian Federal MPs have supported calls for clemency for Nguyen Tuong Van, 23, sentenced to death in Singapore after being convicted of drug-trafficking. Federal MPs have described the death sentence as, "unconscionably harsh." "Where there is an Australian who faces the death penalty, we'll do what we can to try to get clemency granted and for them to serve a custodial sentence. That would be the normal course we would follow" said the Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

Judge Kan Ting Chui sentences Nguyen: "You will be taken from the prison to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead."

Think Centre Calls for a moratorium on Death Penalty

The death penalty is a "cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment." On 17 October 2003, at its press briefing, Think Centre called on the government to declare a moratorium on death sentences. And urge the government to plan for gradual abolition of the death penalty and to seek alternatives to the death penalty.

Think Centre calls to remove the mandatory capital punishment for simple possession of drugs.

The mandatory death sentence must be removed. The laws have to be changed to permit judicial discretion and fairness for drug cases.

Under the current practices judges are helpless to do anything about the disproportional number of drug addicts who are young school drop-outs, poor and with broken family background. They face heavy sentencing and death.

Think Centre seeks the abolition of the death penalty because it believes that state-sanctioned killing denies the right to life and denies the human capacity for change. In the name of victims' rights the death penalty creates more victims.

Think Centre's call to right to life in connection with capital punishment is guided by the desirability of abolition of the death penalty which has been expressed on numerous occasions by the UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Committee, the Economic and Social Council and Security Council [in its resolutions 808 (1993) of 22 February 1993 and 955 (1994) of 8 November 1994]


Amnesty reported that more than 400 people had been executed in Singapore over the past 10 years and alleged a disproportionate number of them were poor and uneducated, and many were foreigners. 30 January 2004, the Singapore government reported that one in three people executed in Singapore over the past 10 years were foreigners. The report indicated 36 percent of the people executed between 1993 and 2003 were foreigners. The percentage of foreigners executed in the past 5 years had fallen to 27 percent, with 37 out of 138 people executed being non-Singaporean. About three quarters of those executed over the past five years were for drug-related offences, while the others were for murder and arms-related offences.

NGUYEN Tuong Van

From boy scout to hangman's noose

NGUYEN Tuong Van's journey from Vietnamese refugee-cum-suburban boy scout to drug trafficker facing a date later this year with the Singapore hangman began with a friendly conversation in Melbourne's Puccini Cafe.

It was there in early November 2002 that a Chinese acquaintance, known as Tan, said he could help him pay off about $25,000 worth of debts Nguyen had taken on for his twin brother, Khoa.

At the time, Nguyen did not know that Tan's plan would involve him carrying almost 400g of heroin through one of the world's toughest anti-drug countries - Singapore.

In a hearing lasting less than five minutes on Saturday, judge Kan Ting Chui ruled in Singapore's High Court that the 23-year-old Australian would face the mandatory death penalty for smuggling 396.2g of heroin into the city-state.

Barely glancing at Nguyen, who stood composed in the dock, Judge Kan said: "You will be taken from the prison to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead."

A court appeal, if launched, will be heard within two months. Should that fail, his lawyers could seek presidential clemency, which would be decided within six months. But only six people have ever been granted presidential clemency. If all these avenues fail, Nguyen will then be hung within weeks inside Changi Prison at 6am one Friday, becoming the first Australian to be executed in more than a decade.

The Australian Government faces a dilemma. Without a strong argument that Nguyen was more foolish boy than malevolent criminal, he has almost no chance of clemency.

Moreover, pressure from Canberra on Singapore is likely to be resented by the authoritarian regime, which according to Amnesty International has executed 400 people in the past 13 years, giving it the highest per-capita rate in the world.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the Government "would do what we can to save his life", but acknowledged "it is a difficult challenge for us".

The last Australian to be executed was Michael Denis McAuliffe, in Malaysia in 1993.

That case did not attract the high-level intervention of that of Brian Chambers and Kevin Barlow, whose executions in 1986 created enormous tensions between the Hawke government and Malaysia.

Part of the difficulty for Nguyen's advocates is that there is no question of his innocence, despite his mandatory not-guilty plea.

From the moment a security officer at the departure lounge of Changi airport - where Nguyen was to board Qantas flight 10 back to Melbourne on December 12, 2002 - noticed his nervousness and felt a bag of heroin strapped to his back, he told authorities everything.

According to documents tendered to the court, after Nguyen met Tan, he was flown to Sydney to meet a Vietnamese man named Sun, who eventually gave him a return ticket to Phnom Penh via Singapore, $US1000 for expenses and a list of instructions for collecting the heroin he was to smuggle.

Nguyen checked into the Pacific Hotel in Phnom Penh to wait for his contact at the Lucky Burger restaurant opposite.

His contacts - a Cambodian man and another man who spoke Vietnamese - forced him to smoke heroin using a rolled-up bank note in a garage somewhere in Phnom Penh, presumably to demonstrate he was not an undercover policeman.

When Nguyen initially refused, the Vietnamese-speaker banged a rod on the table and warned him: "F..k your mother. Smoke or die".

Nguyen told investigators: "I knew I would be killed if I did not follow what they told me to do."

Apart from a diversion to Ho Chi Minh City - Nguyen went to Vietnam for two days because he "was too stressed to stay in Phnom Penh" - he spent most of his nine-day trip shopping for fake designer watches and belts he had intended to give to family and friends on his return.

The syndicate gave him two rocks of heroin that he was instructed to grind in a coffee grinder and place in separate bags. Nguyen went back to his hotel and took hours to break the rocks with a hammer, grind and place the powder in bags. He then used tape to strap the bags to his lower back and abdomen.

On the flight from Phnom Penh to Singapore on December 12, he found he had trouble breathing and put the package strapped to his stomach in his backpack.

During his stopover in Singapore Nguyen considered pulling out.

He told investigators he was afraid he was being watched. "The people in Phnom Penh warned me that the syndicate knew where I lived and warned me not to messed (sic) up ... I had no choice but to deliver the two packets of heroin to someone in Australia."

Moments after deciding to press on, he was caught during a body pat-down search at the gate when the metal detector alarm was triggered.

Nguyen and his twin brother were born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980 but were moved to Australia when they were only a few months old.

His Vietnamese mother chose Australia because she knew the country from a map and hoped that there her fatherless sons would "grow up and get a job". Until his ill-fated journey, Nguyen had never left Australia.

Van, as he is known to family and friends, was an ordinary suburban kid who loved playing tennis and joined a Vietnamese scout troop in Melbourne's southeastern suburbs that combined Vietnamese customs and dress with the traditions of scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell. His brother was once charged with affray and drug offences, leading to massive legal fees. Nguyen, who worked as a salesman on commission, took it upon himself to clear them.

Nguyen's mother, Kim, has not given up hope that her son's life will be spared. Speaking to The Australian after seeing him on Saturday, she said Nguyen was calm but "very worried".

"He was praying before God that there was a chance for him to come back home and redeem himself and be a good person."

Sources and Relevant Links:

Think Centre Think Centre Calls for a moratorium on Death Penalty 17 October 2003

The Australian From boy scout to hangman's noose 22 March 2004

SMH Hundreds offer help for condemned Australian 24 March 2004

The AGE Singapore's grim parade of death 24 March 2004


Amnesty International: The death penalty: A hidden toll of executions

Ministry of Home Affairs: The Singapore Government's Response To Amnesty International's ReportSingapore - The Death Penalty: A Hidden Toll Of Executions 30-Jan-2004

Persons executed in the last 5 years by nationality and offences.

Breakdown by nationality
Singaporeans 101
Foreigners 37
Breakdown by offences
Drugs-related offences 110
Non drugs-related offences
{Murder and arms-related offences) 28

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