Australian executed in Singapore

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The Independent Online

Singapore executed Australian heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van early today in a case that triggered an outcry in his country, where people held vigils at the hour of his hanging. Australia's prime minister said the execution would damage relations between the countries.

"The sentence was carried out this morning at Changi Prison," Singapore's Home Affairs Ministry said in a statement. It said Nguyen had failed in his appeals to the Court of Appeal, and to President SR Nathan for clemency.

Vietnam-born Nguyen, 25, was hanged before dawn despite numerous appeals from Australian leaders for his life to be spared. He received a mandatory death sentence after being caught with 396 grams (14 ounces) of heroin at the city-state's Changi Airport in 2002, en route from Cambodia to Australia.

Dressed in black, a dozen friends and supporters had stood outside the maximum-security Changi Prison hours before the hanging at 6am. Candles and handwritten notes containing messages of support and calls for an end to Singapore's death penalty were placed outside the prison gates.

Nguyen's twin brother, Nguyen Khoa, entered the prison compound, but did not attend the execution. As he left, he hugged a prison officer and shook the hand of another. Nguyen Tuong Van had said he was trafficking heroin to help pay off his twin's debts.

"I have told the prime minister of Singapore that I believe it will have an effect on the relationship on a people-to-people, population-to-population basis," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told Melbourne radio station 3AW shortly before Singapore confirmed the hanging.

"The government itself is not going to take punitive measures against the government of Singapore," Howard said.

Nguyen's death came amid fresh debate about the death penalty in the United States, where North Carolina's governor denied clemency to a man who killed his wife and father-in-law.

The decision cleared the way later today for the 1,000th execution in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

Singapore says its tough laws and penalties for drug trafficking are an effective deterrent against a crime that ruins lives, and that foreigners and Singaporeans must be treated alike. It said Nguyen's appeals for clemency were carefully considered.

"We take a very serious view of drug trafficking - the penalty is death," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday during a visit to Germany.

Nguyen was caught with more than 26 times the 15 grammes (0.53 ounces) of heroin that draws a mandatory death penalty. The Home Affairs Ministry statement said the amount was enough to supply 26,000 doses of heroin, and had a street value of 1.3 million Singapore dollars (US$768,500).

Australia scrapped the death penalty in 1973 and hanged its last criminal in 1967, while Singapore has executed more than 100 people for drug-related offenses since 1999.

According to local media, Singapore has granted clemency to six inmates on death row - all Singaporeans - since independence in 1965.

The Australian High Commission said a private funeral service for Nguyen would be held later today at a chapel in Singapore.

The Nguyen family, their friends and lawyer were to leave Singapore with the body late tomorrow for Melbourne, where it will be buried.

Physical contact between Nguyen and visitors had been barred in past days. But one of his Australian lawyers, Julian McMahon, said Nguyen's mother, Kim, had been allowed to hold her son's hand and touch his face during her last visit on Thursday.

"That was a great comfort to her," McMahon said.

"Who are witnesses to this murder? The governments of Australia and Singapore," said M Ravi, a Singaporean lawyer who has campaigned against the death penalty.

Nguyen's supporters outside the prison included Gopalan and Krishnan Murugesu, teenage twin brothers whose father, Shanmugam, was executed in May after he was caught with a kilogramme (2.2 pounds) of marijuana on 29 August, 2003, as he returned from Malaysia by motorbike.

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