Two-and-a-half hours after I post this diary, Australian Nguyen Tuong Van will be executed by hanging in Singapore’s Changi Prison.
Van was arrested with 396.2 grams of heroin while transiting through Changi Airport en route from Cambodia to Melbourne on 12 December 2002.
Last year, the Singapore High Court sentenced him to death, a mandatory sentence under Singapore law for a drug offence of this kind.
Van and his twin brother Khoa were born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. Soon after, the family moved to Australia.
Why Van was carrying the heroin isn’t completely clear. He’s said that he was trying to raise money to pay debts incurred by his brother. I’ve also heard from a local journalist that he has a criminal record involving drugs here in Australia.
But that’s not the point of this diary. I’m up early this morning because I’ve found it hard to sleep these last few days thinking about this case. The Australian media have faithfully tracked each heartbreaking step in the story as Van’s mother Kim and his brother have flown to Singapore to say goodbye. Sensation sells, of course, and there’s nothing like a distraught mother facing the hopelessness of knowing her child will die at an appointed time and place.
Australia’s Prime Minister Howard has been his usual calculating self. Keeping a weather eye to public opinion, he has carefully sent out some sympathetic signals such as raising the case with Singapore’s Prime Minister at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. As Australian lawyers and civil liberties groups raised potential legal avenues to halt the execution, the Australian Government has ‘studied’ these and rejected them as unworkable.
Taking Singapore to the International Court of Justice and extraditing Van to face charges in Australia have both been rejected. Our Government has been very clear that it opposes the idea of consumer boycotts against Singapore and that it will not endanger the official bilateral relationship.
I don’t know Nguyen Tuong Van. He may or may not have a criminal record. Smuggling heroin isn’t something I support.
But I think capital punishment is barbaric.
And I think it is hopelessly unjust to impose a mandatory death penalty for any offence. I understand that this is contrary to international law, as it does not allow punishment to be imposed on a case-by-case basis to fit the circumstances and severity of a crime, and also fails to take into account contrition and cooperation by the accused. Not to mention the fact that you can’t undo the sentence if the wrong person is convicted.
Van has apparently cooperated with Singapore’s authorities and is a genuinely reformed character after reflecting on his crime for several years. As one of his lawyers said yesterday after a last visit “he is completely rehabilitated, completely reformed, completely focused on doing what is good, and now they’re going to kill him”.
One of his Melbourne school friends who has flown to see him has spoken movingly of the fact that Van is bravely accepting and facing his fate, and mainly concerned for his mother’s welfare.
Amongst the hand-wringing ‘actions’ from the Australian Government has been the request that Singapore’s strict prison code be relaxed to allow Kim to hug her son for a last time. Singapore’s authoritarian Government, which usually does not show any sign of weakness, only relented to the extent of allowing mother and son to hold hands. Later today, Kim will receive her son’s body and will fly home to Australia with it.
I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, or how to finish the diary. Perhaps just to say, if you visit Singapore, don’t carry any chewing gum (illegal), don’t have male homosexual relations (also illegal) and most certainly don’t carry any drugs. You’ve been warned.
Update [2005-12-1 22:23:20 by canberra boy]:
As Oui has kindly commented below, the execution was carried out as scheduled. Immediate political reaction in Australia is summarised here, most notably involving further hand-wringing by John Howard, who criticised Singapore again for denying a final embrace, but not for the execution. Presumably his polling tells him that disengaged outer-suburban swinging voters think that Van got what he deserved. That pretty much sums up Australia today: the politics of self interest. I’ll say more about the politics of capital punishment in the comments. Personally, I’m going to take the advice of Greens Senator Bob Brown (see last link) and hug my family and the friends I see tonight.