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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 November 2005, 00:52 GMT
Australian anger over Singapore hanging
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van
Nguyen Tuong Van was found with 400 grams of heroin
Time is running out for 25-year-old Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van, who is due to be executed at Singapore's Changi prison on Friday.

His death sentence has sparked widespread criticism in Australia.

The Canberra government has repeatedly pleaded for clemency, as have lawyers, trade unions and church groups.

But Singapore remains unmoved, and insists the hanging will go ahead as planned.

"People have been praying for a change of heart," said Father Peter Norden, a friend of Kim Nguyen, the condemned man's mother.

"They want the Singapore government to change its heart from one of stone to a heart of flesh, as well as compassion and reason," he told the BBC.

Father Norden said Nguyen should be spared: "We believe this young man has committed a serious crime deserving of punishment, but not the loss of his life."

Nguyen was arrested carrying almost 400 grams (14 ounces) of heroin at Singapore's Changi airport in late 2002.

He said he was trying to smuggle the drugs from Cambodia to Australia to pay off his twin brother's debts.

Hardline approach

The Australian government believes Nguyen should not face the gallows because he has no previous criminal convictions. It has also argued that he could help investigations into drug syndicates if allowed to live.

But in a letter to his Australian counterpart, the Speaker of the Singapore Parliament, Abdullah Tarmugi, said there was no room for compromise.

"We have an obligation to protect the lives of those who could be ruined by the drugs Nguyen was carrying," he wrote. "He knew what he was doing and the consequences of his actions."

John Karousos, a 66-year-old retiree in Sydney
No-one has the right to take the life of someone else
John Karousos, Sydney retiree
According to Amnesty International, about 420 people have been hanged in Singapore since 1991, mostly for drugs offences.

If these figures are correct, they would give the prosperous city-state of 4.2 million people the highest execution rate in the world, relative to its population.

At the weekend Australian Prime Minister John Howard made his fifth personal plea to the Singaporean leadership, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta.

Mr Howard warned that Singapore should prepare for "lingering resentment" in Australia if the execution went ahead.

He has, however, rejected calls for boycotts of Singaporean companies, as well as trade and military sanctions with one of Australia's closest Asian allies.

"I believe John Howard has done as much as he could do," said Gerard Henderson, from the conservative think-tank The Sydney Institute.

"Listening to talk-back radio, there are some people who think that heroin smugglers deserve the death penalty, but I believe that the majority of Australians hold a different view," Mr Henderson told the BBC News website.

"They will be approaching Friday's deadline with a sense of dread," he added.

Little hope

Nguyen was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980, after his mother fled from Vietnam. The family eventually settled in Melbourne.

Several last-ditch efforts to save him have been suggested, including taking Singapore to the International Court of Justice or arranging a prisoner swap, but legal experts have said none are likely to succeed.

Simon Rice, a lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, said that Singapore was not a signatory to international human rights covenants, and there was little hope the 25-year-old drug trafficker would be saved.

"[Nguyen's] execution is a seriously tragic reminder of how far short we are of a global commitment to human rights," Mr Rice told the BBC.

Australia's Victoria state Attorney-General Rob Hulls (L) comforts a weeping Kim Nguyen (C) while her son Khoa Nguyen looks on at the Australian High Commission on November 24, 2005
Nguyen's mother and brother (r) have flown to Singapore
Some church leaders have called on Australians to observe a minute's silence for Nguyen on Friday, but overall opinion remains mixed.

"No-one has the right to take the life of someone else," John Karousos, a 66-year-old retiree in Sydney, told the BBC. "It doesn't matter what he's done or his mistakes. The death penalty is unacceptable."

"I have a small hope that it will be stopped at the last moment," he added optimistically.

But Gilly Parminter, a 40-year-old mother, was less sympathetic.

"Personally I think if you go into a country you have to abide by their laws, and you have to live with the consequences."

"It does seem harsh but they [the Singaporeans] can't change their minds at this late stage because it will undermine their system," she said.

The last Australian to be executed overseas was Michael McAuliffe.

The barman from Sydney was hanged in Malaysia in June 1993, after serving eight years in prison for heroin trafficking.

In 1986 two Australian citizens, Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, were also hanged in Malaysia after being convicted of drug smuggling.

There appears to be little hope that Nguyen Tuong Van will avoid a similar fate in Singapore this Friday.

What do you think? Do you think the death penalty is unacceptable in any case? Or do you think that one must abide by the laws of the country that you are in, whether that is your home or not?

We will discuss this and other issues surrounding the death penalty on World Have Your Say on the BBC World Service between 1800 and 1900 GMT, Wednesday 30 November.

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