December 17th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: The death penalty and Van Tuong Nguyen

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Contenders for the Howard succession

CULTURE WARS: Fighting to defend civilisation

SCHOOLS: Truth and beauty to exchanged for 'relevance'

OPINION: Abortion drug victimises women

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Burma, ASEAN and selective breast-beating / Latham was right / Asia for the Australians / News item

FOREIGN DEBT: Greenspan issues warning over foreign debt

PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE Private funding 'more expensive'

INTERNATIONAL POLITICS: Global significance of China-India relations

IRAQ WAR: Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction

ENVIRONMENT: Ensuring sustainable agriculture

TIMOR LESTE: 'Thanks for helping East Timor'

Compulsory voting a necessity (letter)

Disabled people at risk from euthanasia (letter)

ABC insults Australia's war dead (letter)

Low pay and joblessness (letter)

BOOKS: HOW MUMBO-JUMBO CONQUERED THE WORLD: A Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen

BOOKS: FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy

BOOKS: THE CASE FOR DEMOCRACY: The power of freedom to overcome tyranny and terror, by Natan Sharansky

Books promotion page

The death penalty and Van Tuong Nguyen

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, December 17, 2005
Critics of Singapore's justice system seldom speak out against communist China's far more extensive use of the death penalty, writes Peter Westmore.

The imposition of the death penalty in Singapore on convicted Australian drug trafficker, Van Tuong Nguyen, has been painful for most Australians, even for many who believe there are crimes which deserve this punishment.

When one considers the crimes committed by a Hitler, a Stalin or a Saddam Hussein, it is hard to maintain that there can be no circumstances in which the death penalty should be imposed.

On the other hand, when the death penalty is imposed on a person as a result of a mandatory death penalty for drug-smuggling, when the person was not a hardened drug-runner and has expressed remorse for his crime, and when we see his grief-stricken mother visit him in Changi Prison for the last time, it is impossible not to be deeply moved.

Yet our own country, which permits the killing of around 100,000 unborn children every year, is hardly in a position to throw stones at Singapore.

Chilling warnings

In relation to drug-trafficking in Singapore, every foreign visitor hears and sees chilling warnings, both on airlines flying into Singapore and at Changi Airport, that any person found in possession of drugs faces a lengthy term of imprisonment or the death penalty. The same applies in other Asian cities.

In the Nguyen case, there can be no doubt that he was rightly found guilty of heroin trafficking, whatever one thinks about the death penalty subsequently imposed.

Singapore is just one of about 70 countries which still impose the death penalty, and its use is principally against drug smugglers, frequently foreigners. It argues that the death penalty is a deterrent against drug traffickers, both into Singapore, and into other countries in the region.

Countries which employ the death penalty far more frequently include two of Australia's major trading partners, the United States and China.

Amnesty International, a body which has been in the forefront of highlighting deficiencies in Australia's and other Western countries' legal systems, makes a very powerful case in relation to China.

It says, "The People's Republic of China continues to carry out more judicial executions than the rest of the world combined.

"In addition, despite having the largest population in the world, China possibly executes a higher proportion of its population than any other country, except for Singapore, which has one of the smallest populations.

"Behind these facts lies a criminal justice system which cannot and does not guarantee a fair trial under international law to defendants.

"Often defendants are denied their right to legal representation until after they have been interrogated, and even then, access in practice is strictly limited. The period of pre-arrest or pre-trial detention is often arbitrary, lasting in one extreme case for 28 years.

"Torture by police in China is rife, but there is no provision under Chinese law to exclude from court 'confessions' or other 'evidence' extorted through torture. In practice, there is no presumption of innocence."

Amnesty adds: "Trials and the process of appeal are often summary. Furthermore, there is no independence of the judiciary in China. The ruling Chinese Communist Party influences the judicial process at every level of proceedings with courts in particular being monitored and run by Party bodies."

Yet, Australia is quite happy to negotiate a free-trade agreement with this country, even though its record on capital punishment is appalling and it uses abortion to enforce its "one child" policy.

In the meantime, the case of Van Tuong Nguyen is likely to be repeated next year in Indonesia. If a young Australian woman, Schapelle Corby, received a 15-year prison term for importing marijuana into Bali, the nine Australians arrested for drug-trafficking face a much worse fate.

In the case of the Bali Nine, Australian Federal Police actively assisted Indonesian police surveillance which led to the arrest of the nine in Bali this year.

Indonesia practises the death penalty. Many Australians applauded, and very few expressed indignation, when three Indonesian extremists were sentenced to death for the 2002 Bali bombings, in which over 200 people, including 88 Australians, were killed, and hundreds more wounded.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, when asked how the imposition of the death penalty on terrorists in Indonesia could be reconciled with Australia's rejection of the death penalty, stated that Australia would make no representations to Indonesia on the issue.

However, the Australian Government rightly expressed dismay when the prison sentence on Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual leader of the Islamic terrorist network in Indonesia, was shortened by a couple of months to mark a religious festival.

It is surely wrong that people in this country should be concerned about the sentence only because Mr Nguyen was Australian.

  • Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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