AS AUSTRALIAN citizen and Victorian resident Nguyen Tuong Van faced execution in Singapore, the legal profession was compelled to appeal to the President of the Republic of Singapore to reprieve him.
In a letter to the President of Singapore, Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) president Victoria Strong asked that he and the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of the Government of Singapore “exercise discretion available under the Constitution of Singapore to grant a reprieve to [Nguyen] in light of the compassionate circumstances and compelling mitigating factors relevant to his case”.
While the LIV is aware of the strong stance on drug trafficking taken by the Singapore Government and the application of mandatory death in such cases, wrote Strong, it does “not support the imposition of the mandatory death penalty as an instrument of punishment”.
The Law Council of Australia also pleaded with Singapore to spare the life of Nguyen in a letter sent to the Prime Minister of Singapore. The Law Council urged the Singapore Government to reconsider 25-year-old Nguyen’s plea for clemency.
Law Council president John North said, “the President of the Republic of Singapore has discretion under the Constitution to commute [Nguyen’s] death sentence to life in prison — a sentence that would ensure he receives considerable punishment for his crime and that he could not re-offend.”
North also said that the Law Council would support the Australian Government should it decide to take the issue to the International Court of Justice. “The Law Council does not support the death penalty. [Nguyen] has no prior convictions of any kind and has cooperated fully with Singapore authorities from the time of his arrest,” he said.
“It seems clear he is not a principal in relation to the drug trafficking scheme but rather an expendable carrier in a much larger enterprise.”
A Brisbane lawyer has also been heading the campaign to save Van. Russell Thirgood, a senior associate at McCullough Robertson and the president of Amnesty International Australia, committed himself to doing everything to save the life of “this young Australian”, he said.
The campaign led by Thirgood has involved a call for community support as well as lobbying governments both in Australia and Singapore. “Thousands of people have lent their support for the abolishment of the death penalty by writing letters to the Singapore Government,” he said.
As well, federal and state parliamentarians in Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia have passed bipartisan motions calling for clemency, said Thirgood.
“Although our immediate and urgent goal is to save Van from execution we are asking that the Australian Government [has] the courage to take on the issue with APEC with an aim of abolishing the death penalty in the region,” Thirgood said.
“Van admits he committed a stupid crime of trafficking 396 grams of heroin to help his twin brother pay off some legal fees. He has cooperated fully with police and accepts that he should be published for his crime. What is impossible to accept, however, is that his punishment is completely disproportionate to his crime. We consider Singapore to be a civilised country, but execution is not a civilised way to deal with human beings,” said Thirgood.
He said he was very dedicated to Van’s case, having met his mother and friends. “To execute Van would be an atrocious tragedy. The Singapore Government has claimed that its decision is irreversible, and that’s not the case. While he’s still alive there is still a chance that they can reconsider that decision and not carry out this hanging. What’s irreversible is the death penalty itself,” he said recently.
The LIV called on the President to make use of the Constitution of Singapore which allows him to “grant a pardon to an accomplice in any offence who gives information which leads to the conviction of the principal offender” and “remit the whole or any part of such sentence”.
In her letter to the President of Singapore, LIV’s Strong said, “The LIV respectfully requests that you exercise your discretion, as provided for under the Constitution of Singapore, to reconsider the pleas for clemency made on behalf of [Nguyen] by his family, legal representatives and the Australian Government, including Prime Minister John Howard.”
“We ask that you intervene to ensure that a more appropriate form of punishment is accorded to [Nguyen] based on the compassionate motive that led him to commit his crime and the strong mitigating factors applicable to his case,” wrote Strong.