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Hangman has the final say

by Michael McKenna Saturday, Dec. 03, 2005 at 9:22 AM

Australian Nguyen Tuong Van lost his fight for survival, dying on the gallows at the new Changi Prison almost three years to the day after he was arrested with 396g of heroin in transit at Singapore's international airport.

Hangman has the final say

Michael McKenna

03dec05

HIS was the last face that hundreds of prisoners saw before the noose was placed around their necks as they heard the now well-known final promise of being sent to "a better place". But until this week, the identity of Singapore's chief executioner, Darshan Singh - who admits to having hanged more than 850 condemned men and women in a 46-year career - has been a secret in his own country.

The pot-bellied, Malaysian-born grandfather made a surprise public appearance, featuring in a two-page article in the government-owned tabloid The New Paper, in an unexpected, and unintended, debate in the city-state over its death penalty laws.

The cause of this rare local publicity for Singapore's capital punishment in the paternalistic state dominated by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party was Australian Nguyen Tuong Van.

The convicted drug courier early yesterday lost his fight for survival, dying on the gallows at the new Changi Prison almost three years to the day after he was arrested with 396g of heroin in transit at Singapore's international airport.

But to some Singaporeans, Van's death has given life to the possibility of reform of the mandatory death sentence laws that have made the thriving Asian hub of four million people one of the execution capitals of the world. Amnesty International estimated last year that more than 400 people had been hanged in Singapore between 1991 and 2003.

Despite the numbers and, partly due to scant local coverage of the frequent Friday morning killings, opposition to the death penalty has been almost non-existent in the republic's 40-year history.

The Government, headed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, has left the executions in near secrecy, never announcing a scheduled hanging and prohibiting officials from ever talking. Instead, the unwavering policy of dealing death, mostly to non-violent offenders (100 of the 138 executed from 1999 to 2003 were for drug-related offences) has long been justified to its population, and the rest of the world, as keeping its famously clean streets from a drug scourge plaguing Southeast Asia.

"In the case of drug trafficking, the death penalty has deterred drug syndicates from establishing themselves in Singapore," a government website says in response to the Amnesty International report.

And the death penalty seems to be supported by Singaporeans. While there has never been a definitive study, some past polls have shown that up to 70 per cent of Singaporeans back the laws.

The common view of Singaporeans who spoke to Inquirer was: "They knew the laws, paid the price and there are few cities as safe as ours in the world."

But while the deterrent affect of Singapore's capital punishment is debatable, it is not something that, until the Van case, has ever had a real chance of being widely questioned.

According to local reporters, lawyers and civil libertarians, it was only earlier this year, with the May 13 hanging of Van's death-row friend and champion athlete Shanmugan Murugesu, 38, that the city-state's anti death-penalty movement gained traction.

A civil rights group, the Think Centre, marshalled the popularity of the internet among young Singaporeans to bypass the pro-government mainstream media and protest against Murugesu's hanging for smuggling 1kg of marijuana and call for abolition of the death penalty.

In August, that action was followed by a concert at which police barred demonstrators from displaying the image of Murugesu and forced the removal of T-shirts saying Abolish Death Penalty and F--- Your Politics.

But the protests, and the message, hardly rated a mention in the leading newspapers or broadcasters. It was hardly surprising.

This year, global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore as 140th out of 167 countries in its annual press freedom index, alongside the likes of Azerbaijan (141), Egypt (142) and Syria (145). RSF attributed Singapore's ranking to the absence of independent newspapers as well as radio and television stations, the application of prison sentences for press offences and self-censorship by journalists. An employee of The Straits Times, the country's largest and most influential daily newspaper, told Inquirer "there would be at least a few" in the newsroom who would work for the Government's secret service. "But that is the same in newspapers around the world, it is not something we would strike or picket over."

During an October press conference held by local civil rights lawyer M. Ravi to seek to prevent Van's impending execution, the representative of The Straits Times not only broke the accepted rule of reporters worldwide in leaving his mobile phone on, but commenced a loud and animated conversation just as proceedings began. It wasn't much of stretch to wonder if the call was an attempt to distract rather than bad manners. Regardless, there was no coverage of the press conference the next day, in line with previous attempts to bring the issue to the attention of the wider public.

But all that changed in recent weeks. The onslaught of attention on the Van case by the incoming Australian media and Singapore-based foreign press, as well as diplomatic exchanges, particularly between Prime Minister John Howard and Lee at multilateral forums, made it too big to ignore. Day after day, as Van's execution date drew closer, the local coverage grew.

Indeed, it was The Straits Times that published a spirited defence of the death penalty with an editorial this week and a near-full page piece by senior columnist Andy Ho.

The newspaper called for Australians to "take an objective look at the crime, not only the punishment" and warned that more would face the gallows if they tried to smuggle heroin through Singapore.

For death penalty opponents such as Ravi, the simple recognition of the issue is progress. "The Nguyen case has taken Singapore by storm, it has raised a plethora of issues in the public eye for the first time," he says.

"The debate would never have been pushed this far and people are starting to question the policy, particularly the use of mandatory death sentences for drug offenders. I think the fear factor is starting to go away."

Change may begin first in the unwavering use of the mandatory death sentence laws, particularly for drug-related offences.

Under Singaporean law, anyone convicted of possessing more than 15g of heroin or 500g of marijuana is presumed to be trafficking and faces the death penalty.

Those convicted of murder, treason and some firearms offences share the same fate. There is no discretion for the presiding judge to lessen the penalty even if, as in Van's case, the convicted criminal shows remorse, provides information to police and appears to be a first offender.

Van exhausted all avenues to escape death, including a petition for clemency to Singaporean President S.R. Nathan. It was refused on the advice of the cabinet, and particularly the attorney-general, whose department oversaw the prosecution. No statement of reasons for the denial was ever provided. Only six condemned prisoners have been granted clemency since Singapore won independence.

Howard's reported five personal pleas on behalf of Van to his counterpart Lee, culminating with a meeting at the CHOGM forum in Malta, as well as Labor Opposition and union calls, fell on deaf ears publicly.

Requests for an application to the International Court of Justice were rejected by the Howard Government because Singapore would not recognise the court's jurisdiction. Government-level ties between the two countries are very close and go well beyond the annual billion worth of bilateral trade deals. The relationship embraces sensitive defence and intelligence links and growing corporate investment. It was regarded as a separate issue.

This week, Lee, in dismissing any last-minute reprieve for Van, appeared resolute against reforming the hardline penalty policy that his lawyer-father developed. "[It is] necessary and is part of the criminal justice system," Lee told France's Le Figaro newspaper in rejecting claims it was inhuman and outdated for people convicted of non-violent crimes. "The evil inflicted on thousands of people with drug trafficking demands that we must tackle the source by punishing the traffickers rather than trying to pick up the pieces afterwards."

But high-profile lawyer Subhas Anandan, founding president of the Singapore Criminal Lawyers Association and a supporter of the death penalty for some offenders, believes the signs for change are emerging.

Interestingly, a column in The Straits Times says the death penalty should be reassessed by lawyers, officials and citizens alike, while opponents could be more "strategic" and focus on the mandatory aspect of the punishment rather than the full abolition of capital punishment.

While Van's Singapore lawyer Tito Isaac, who was appointed by the Government, refused all requests for an interview, his Australian barrister Lex Lasry, QC, has been an outspoken critic of the sentencing laws and believes change will happen.

Not surprisingly, it is the hangman Singh, whose identity was revealed to the world last month in an exclusive interview with The Australian, who has dominated conversation among ordinary Singaporeans. After The Australian's article, Singh reportedly told a Sydney newspaper he had been sacked for granting the interview - and would be missing out on his 0 special executioner's payment.

Some speculated his comments were a Government-devised ruse to deflect attention away from the hanging. It is not known whether he did execute Van. Midweek, The New Paper ran an interview depicting him as a solid civil servant duped into talking to The Australian and posing for a photograph.

The article drew heavily on Singh's description in The Australian of his vocation, his job satisfaction and his now infamous send-off to the condemned: 'I am now sending you to a better place than this. God bless you."

Whatever the intent of the article, it also brought home to Singaporeans the brutal nature of their hangings.

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