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Nguyen Tuong Van - no ripples in the murky world of drugs

By Gillian Handley - posted Friday, 25 November 2005

A few days ago, Radio 702 raised the issue of the impending execution of Nguyen Tuong Van. It soon became clear that some people feel this young Australian should not be saved from the gallows. At least one listener rang in to announce that he, for one, felt his children would be safer if people like Nguyen Tuong Van were done away with.

My brother, David, was murdered five years ago. I can tell you from experience that when you are lacerated by grief and rage, your first instinct is for revenge - the bloodier, the better. Surprising then, that I never wanted the death penalty for my brother’s killers.

What I did want was to make them understand the enormity of their crime. Hanging was not going to do that. What I wanted was for them to know my brother - to understand him - as the person he was, flaws and all. By getting to know their victim, I wanted them to come to realise the loss that his death meant. Until they understood that, they could not appreciate the magnitude of their crime.


This may sound simplistic, but I can think of no greater punishment than to live with yourself, once you comprehend the full extent of the crime you have committed.

My brother was not a killer and he would not have expected a life for his life. A death sentence for his murderers would have diminished David’s death because as an institutionalised killing, it would, more than anything, devalue life itself.

Whatever his crimes, Nguyen does not deserve to be executed. Mandatory death sentences are particularly horrifying, as mercy - surely the badge of a civilised society - is locked out of the judicial process. Even if you regard Nguyen as the worst kind of criminal, you owe it to the victims of drugs to bring him to a full understanding of his role in their suffering - and you won’t do that by hanging him.

Nguyen received the death penalty because in Singapore that is the mandatory sentence for anyone found carrying that amount of heroin. There is no allowance for proportionality. Mandatory sentencing does not recognise any subtleties of intention behind the crime. Had a drug king been caught with the same amount of the drug on him, but with a very different intention behind the crime - in his case, to knowingly create a demand for the drug by as many people as possible, by whatever means possible - his sentence would have been the same - death. By any standards, Nguyen surely deserves a lesser punishment.

This is not to say that Nguyen should get off lightly, but rather to let the punishment fit the crime. Many Australians seem to regard prison as a minor form of punishment; as if it is not, in itself, enough. Incarcerating someone for years is a terrible thing and yet the public bays for longer and longer sentences while politicians fall over themselves to be seen as being tough on crime. Imprisonment, for Nguyen, would be punishment enough.

There are other victims in this story - drug victims of another kind. Heroin addicts drag their families down into their twilight world of violence and fear. Think of Nguyen’s mother Kim, who is living a nightmare, with one son an addict, the other on death row. She suffers all the fallout, from the agonies of the addict to the torment of the condemned - the whole nightmare of drug addiction neatly parcelled in one family. In a sense, Nguyen can be seen as a victim himself. He has seen the howling horror of an addict’s world in the eyes of his brother. It was his brother’s drug addiction that drove Nguyen to crime.


The Singapore sentencing system has denied Nguyen the possibility of mercy. The mandatory death penalty means that mitigating factors are not considered. Have a look at the transcript of the judgment and you will see legal arguments that rustle on the page like withered leaves. Principals and policies are argued. It’s all too easy to forget that there is a life at stake here. This is the effect of mandatory sentencing; the human element is removed. It is easier to send a man to the gallows when you cannot see his face.

If you are going to kill that man, you should at least know something about him. Here is some information taken from the judgment against Nguyen. (The case against Nguyen as published here. Nguyen is speaking:

I was born in Thailand, Sonkha, in a refugee camp in 1980. My mother was a Vietnamese refugee. I did not know who my father was until November this year. He came from America to look for my brother and I. ... Shortly after I was born, (my mother, brother and I) migrated to Australia. I cannot remember much about my childhood. My mother married in 1987 to a Vietnamese Australian. My step-father beat my brother and I quite often. … I completed secondary school education … I intended to proceed with my university education at Deakin University. However due to financial difficulties, I started working instead of studying. … Around end 1999, I also set up my own business in Melbourne dealing with computer sales. There was no need for any capital. Shortly after that my twin brother got into trouble with the law and I wind (sic) up my business to raise legal fees for him. So I found a sale, research and marketing job and I earned between A$1,500 to A$2,500 a month depending on how much commission I received …

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About the Author

Gillian Handley is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia.

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