Australia brands Singapore’s decision as barbaric act

A top Australian official on Thursday branded Singapore's looming execution of an Australian drug smuggler as a barbaric act. "It's a most unfortunate, barbaric act that is occurring," Attorney-General Philip Ruddock told Sky television, drawing a line under months of unsuccessful diplomatic lobbying by Canberra for Singapore to spare the life of 25-year-old heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van.

But as the government urged Singapore to allow Nguyen's mother a final farewell hug with her son before he goes to the gallows at dawn on Friday, a poll showed that Australians were divided over whether he should die.

A Roy Morgan poll published Thursday showed that 47 percent of people believed the death sentence should be carried out compared to 46 percent who said it should not. The telephone poll of 654 people did not give a margin of error.

Hundreds of people held a candlelit vigil outside Australia's Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday to show support for Nguyen. More supporters planned to rally in downtown Sydney Friday morning at the appointed time of Nguyen's execution.

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 between 1999 and 2003.

Singapore rejected five personal pleas for clemency for Nguyen from Prime Minister John Howard, who lobbied the city-state along with other ministers.

However, Singapore bowed Thursday to Australian pressure to allow Nguyen to touch his mother and twin brother during their final visit. "Mr. Nguyen will be allowed to hold hands with his mother and brother," a statement released by the High Commission in Canberra said.

Nguyen's mother Kim and twin brother, Nguyen Khoa, entered the jail early Thursday afternoon. A friend, Kelly Ng, also visited. "We've just had a beautiful last visit. It was a great visit and quite uplifting," said Lex Lasry, one of Nguyen's lawyers. He brushed away tears as he spoke to the media.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had pleaded with Singapore officials that the 25-year-old's mother be allowed to give him a hug. "It's just my view that they should have some contact before he dies," Downer told reporters.

Singapore previously had rejected requests from family and loved ones to have any physical contact with condemned prisoners. Death row inmates at Changi Prison are separated from their visitors by a pane of glass.

Nguyen received a mandatory death sentence after he was caught in 2002 at Singapore's Changi Airport on his way home to the southern city of Melbourne carrying nearly 400 grams (14 ounces) of heroin. Singapore's High Commissioner to Australia Joseph Koh gave a rare media interview on the case Thursday, but did not directly answer when asked whether he thought that refusing clemency would damage relations between the two countries.

"I think the bigger picture is that Singapore highly values good relations with Australia and with Australian leaders," Koh said. "We share a common belief in the sanctity of the law." "It is for this reason that the Singapore Cabinet actually deliberated at length on the clemency petition," he added, reports the AP. I.L.

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