Australian's legal battle ends at the gallows

A young Australian heroin smuggler’s legal and diplomatic battle to avoid execution ended swiftly on Friday when he was hanged in a Singapore prison after all appeals were exhausted.

“Everything is over,” Singaporean human rights lawyer M Ravi declared outside the prison at 6am local time—the usual time of executions in Singapore—as church bells tolled in Nguyen Tuong Van’s home city Melbourne.

Dozens of journalists waited outside the suburban jail to await word of the execution, but in the end it was a brief e-mailed press statement that confirmed the 25-year-old ethnic Vietnamese prisoner had been hanged at dawn.

“It takes six minutes altogether for them to fracture his neck,” said Ravi, who defended Shanmugam Murugesu, a former Singapore national sportsman and soldier hanged in May for marijuana trafficking.

About a dozen sympathisers and anti-execution campaigners prayed silently and left lighted candles on a sidewalk next to a prison sign with the motto: “Security, humanity, rehabilitation.”

Witnesses later saw Nguyen’s body, wrapped in a white shroud, being carried on an orange stretcher into a funeral home for embalming prior to a Roman Catholic service at a convent chapel.

An Australian diplomat said his body was expected to arrive on an early Sunday flight in Melbourne.

Singaporean activists are now campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty in the South-East Asian financial and technological centre, whose continued use of hanging has been denounced as a “barbaric” practice.

The newly formed Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Committee said “we cannot allow the state to calculatedly kill, in cold blood, prisoners it already has incarcerated and incapacitated”.

“Singapore can do better than this,” it said.

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said 420 people were executed in Singapore between 1991 and 2004, which it described as a “shocking number” for a nation of just more than four million people.

The government says eight Singaporeans and foreigners were executed in 2004 and 19 in 2003.

Based on previous accounts, executions are usually conducted with the prisoner shackled and hooded before a noose is put round his neck and a hangman pulls a lever to release a trapdoor, snapping the neck as the body drops.

The prison is located close to Changi airport, where Nguyen was arrested for heroin smuggling in December 2002 while in transit from Cambodia to Australia.

With almost 400g of pure heroin strapped to his body, Nguyen confessed he agreed to be a drug mule to help pay off his twin brother Khoa’s debts, and his lawyers said he cooperated with police.

But Singapore law states that possession of any amount beyond 15g is punishable by a mandatory death sentence, carried out only by hanging.

After rejecting repeated clemency appeals by Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s government, Singapore authorities also declined Nguyen’s mother Kim’s final wish to hug her son one last time.

The only exception they made was to allow her and Khoa to hold hands with the prisoner during their last visit on Thursday, which Howard called a “clinical response” that left him “particularly disappointed”.

Nguyen’s mother, too distraught to visit the prison again, chose to stay in a chapel at the time of the execution.

In the final hours before the hanging, as a protest vigil was about to start in Singapore, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was visiting Germany, dismissed any remaining hopes for Nguyen when he said “the law has to take its course and the law will take its course”.

“We take a very serious view of drug trafficking and the penalty is death,” he said in Berlin after meeting with new German Chancellor Angela Merkel.—Sapa-AFP

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