Group of activists launch campaign to save Australian drug trafficker

A small group of activists has launched a campaign against the death penalty in hopes of saving the life of an Australian on death row for drug trafficking. Chances of success are remote in a nation that rarely grants clemency to convicted criminals. A dozen activists plan to hold a forum on Nov. 7 to argue that convicted heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van should not be hanged by a government that believes its tough stance on illegal drugs helps keep Singapore safer than most Asian cities.

"We would like to get Singaporeans to think about Nguyen's case and ask themselves if the punishment fits the crime," said Jacob George, a human rights activist. However, forums held by government critics do not attract large numbers of people.

Nguyen, 25, was arrested at Singapore's Changi Airport in 2002 while in transit from Cambodia to the southern Australian city of Melbourne with 396 grams (14 ounces) of heroin strapped to his back and in carry-on luggage.

Australian newspapers have written extensively on Nguyen's case, but the case is of minor interest in Singapore, where government decisions are rarely questioned and the death penalty is largely accepted by society.

"He's acted really stupidly, carrying heroin into Singapore knowing that we're not exactly the most lenient country in the world," said Edwin Poh, a freelance designer. "Even if he's just a courier, it's still a risk he's taken and now he has to pay the price."

Another Singaporean said the city-state would appear indecisive or weak if it gave in to Australia's appeals for clemency.

"I don't quite support capital punishment," said Frederick Tong, an advertising executive. "But all that is redundant now because having already decided on the sentence, the worst thing Singapore can possibly do politically is to succumb to pressure."

George, the activist, said speakers at the indoor forum will include a gay rights activist and a Roman Catholic priest. The forum is a rare instance of activism in a country where political activity is tightly controlled.

According to London-based human rights group Amnesty International, Singapore has the world's highest per capita execution rate.

Government figures show 340 people were hanged between 1991 and 2000.

Last year, eight executions were carried out, down from 19 in 2003. In Canberra, the federal parliament passed a motion Monday calling on Singapore to grant clemency to Nguyen. But Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expressed pessimism about the chances of Singapore having a change of heart.

"The death penalty is imposed for the most serious of crimes such as murder and use of firearms," Gillian Ong, a Home Affairs Ministry spokeswoman in Singapore, said in a statement. "It is part of a range of punishments which has helped to keep crime rates and drug abuse rates in Singapore low." Hangings are traditionally carried out before dawn on Fridays at Changi Prison. M. Ravi, a lawyer who has represented two convicted drug traffickers in failed clemency appeals, said Nguyen's relatives would be notified about a week before the scheduled execution.

Ravi last week wrote to President S.R. Nathan, asking him to convene a court session to determine if Nguyen had been treated unfairly under the constitution. He has not received a response.

Nathan, whose job is largely ceremonial, has the power to grant clemency to convicted criminals. But rights groups say he has not spared the life of any drug offender on death row since becoming president in 1999, reports the AP. I.L.

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