Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Remembering Van Tuong Nguyen

[Please note: long post]

One year ago this Saturday, Singapore hanged 25 year-old Australian citizen Van Tuong Nguyen.

Van was hanged at 6am in Changi jail on 2 December 2005, six weeks after his appeal for clemency was rejected by the Singapore President.

The Singapore government went ahead with the execution despite repeated appeals for mercy from the Australian government, the intervention of state and federal parliamentarians, an unprecedented level of protest in Australia, appeals from two Popes and protests by a small group of anti-death penalty activists in Singapore.

Singapore is believed to have the highest execution rate in the world, per head of its population.

One year on
Van's mother Kim Nguyen, his twin brother Khoa and his closest friends live with the continuing punishment of his execution.

His mother Kim, an intensely private woman, has spoken out about her anguish in the documentary Just Punishment, which will be aired on Australia's ABC TV on 7 December, from 9.20pm (AEDT).

Kim Nguyen says in the documentary that her son was not like the people who organise the drug trade.

"The people who have millions of money, they are the people who bring drugs . . . they never get killed," she says.

"He is just a stupid boy."

She adds that he was a "gentle" person who was very different to his brother.

His twin brother Khoa, a former heroin addict, says that he blames himself for his brother's death.

"I feel guilty that I did lots of bad things. I feel guilty that I influenced my brother in a bad way to do bad things."

The documentary narrates Van's final entry in his journal before his hanging: "I have reflected about what will take place at 6am and I can only smile, because I know I will be returning to heaven to watch over all those who have touched my life."

Catholic priest Father Peter Norden said he would lead a church service for Van's family and friends on Saturday, after which they would release balloons into the sky "as a sign of hope".

He said no public events were planned.

Van Nguyen's two closest friends, Kelly Ng and Bronwyn Lew, will restage their highly emotive Reach Out campaign in front of the State Library of Victoria on Friday.

During last year's campaign to save Van Nguyen from the gallows, the two women collected traced images of thousands of hands and messages of support from people across Australia.

Ms Ng told AAP they hoped displaying the hands again would remind people that the death penalty should not be used in the 21st century.

"Hopefully they will serve as a reminder to all the people who walk past, that we did lose our friend Van to something that shouldn't have happened," she said.

"The death penalty is something that shouldn't be happening in the 21st century. Van did do something wrong and he does require punishment, but the punishment that was given to him is disproportional to his crime."

She said she hoped her friend's execution would help others facing the same punishment.

"I don't think Van's life was wasted, his life wasn't taken away from him in vain.

"Some good will come of this and hopefully we will be able to help other people who are currently facing the death penalty," Ms Ng said.

A tragic case
Van Nguyen was arrested in Changi airport in December 2002, in transit from Cambodia to Australia, after police found a package of heroin strapped to his back and a second package in his backpack.

In March 2004 he was convicted of importing 396.2 grams of heroin into Singapore and sentenced to death under the country's Misuse of Drugs Act, which carries a mandatory death sentence for anyone found guilty of trafficking in more than 15 grams of heroin.

Van, who had no prior criminal record, was reportedly carrying the drugs in order to pay off debts owed by his twin brother. He was so naïve that, according to his statement to police, he didn't know how much he would be paid for carrying the drugs.

Related stories:
MP criticises "tragic waste of human life" -- 29 November, 2006
Singapore forum against death penalty -- 21 August 2006
Trade undisturbed by Singapore execution -- 04 July 2006
Victoria criticises Singapore death penalty -- 17 April 2006

Asia death penalty, death penalty, drug trade, drugs, execution, human rights, Nguyen Tuong Van, Singapore, Van Tuong Nguyen

MP criticises "tragic waste of human life"

An Australian parliamentarian has marked the first anniversary of Van Tuong Nguyen's execution in Singapore by condemning the pointless waste of his death.

Van Nguyen, a 25 year-old salesman from Melbourne, was hanged in Singapore on 2 December, 2005.

Ms Anna Burke, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) Member for Chisholm, told the Australian Parliament on 27 November that Van Nguyen's execution had served no purpose.

"Since his death, we have not stopped the drug trafficking. We have not stopped people stupidly going there and trafficking drugs.

"We have now had more Australians caught up in foreign countries who will also be facing execution," she said.

Six Australians are currently on death row in Bali, Indonesia, after being convicted of drug smuggling offences.

Ms Burke said Van Nguyen's death "was a tragic waste of human life".

"Yes, he should have been punished—he should been punished severely—but not by execution," she said.

Ms Burke said she had met Van Nguyen's mother Kim last week, who was still "a victim" of her son's execution.

"She still cannot come to terms with her situation.

"Day in, day out, she sees herself as the victim of this crime, of this execution. She does not like to leave her home. She does not like to interact with people," Ms Burke said.

She said execution had "served no purpose" in this case or in any other case.

Related stories:
Remembering Van Tuong Nguyen -- 29 November, 2006
Trade undisturbed by Singapore execution -- 04 July 2006
Victoria criticises Singapore death penalty -- 17 April 2006

Asia death penalty, death penalty, drug trade, drugs, execution, human rights, Nguyen Tuong Van, Singapore, Van Tuong Nguyen

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Stop transplant tourism: surgeon

A leading Israeli surgeon has called on patients in his country to stop travelling to China for transplant surgery.

Dr Jacob Lavee, director of the heart transplant unit at the Sheba Medical Center, said 90 percent of transplant organs in China had been taken from executed prisoners without consent.

According to a 29 October report on the Israeli news website Ynetnews, Dr Lavee described transplants performed in China as "crimes against humanity" in a special survey published in the medical journal Harefua.

The rate of organ donation is very low in Israel, up to half the rate in Europe and the United States.

About half of Israeli patients on waiting lists travel overseas for surgery as a result of the shortage of available organs. Most travel to China.

Dr Lavee said: "It goes without saying that the distress of patients in Israel waiting for transplants is great, but one's distress doesn't justify committing a crime on another."

The Harefua article quoted a Chinese doctor who sought political refuge in the United States.

Dr Wang Guayoki testified before a House of Representatives committee that he had removed skin and corneas from more than 100 executed prisoners in China.

He said the prisoners were given an injection to prevent their blood from clotting and perserve their organs. They were then shot in the head, with medical staff waiting to remove the organs for transplant.

'Thriving trade'
In September, an undercover BBC investigation found a "thriving trade" in organs from executed prisoners.

One hospital in Tianjin told a BBC correspondent it could supply a transplant liver at a cost of £50,000 (US$94,400). The chief surgeon confirmed that the organ could come from an executed prisoner.

The BBC said China's foreign ministry admitted in March that organs from prisoners were used in transplants, but claimed this occurred only in "very few cases".

One official told the BBC that prisoners donated their organs as a "present to society".

Related stories:
China restricts organs from executions -- 29 March, 2006

, , executed prisoners, human rights, law reform, organ transplant

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Viet Nam death penalty "not deterring drugs"

A Vietnamese parliamentary commission has admitted the death penalty is failing to deter drug crime, despite the large number of people executed for drug-related offences each year.

Thanh Nien News reported on 3 November that the National Assembly's Legal Commission also favoured reducing the number of crimes that attract the death penalty.

Legal Commission vice director Tran The Vuong said it acknowledged the deterrent effect of the death penalty was "not so significant".

"Though there have been a lot of death sentences for drug-related offenses, the number of drug criminals has increased," Tran The Vuong said on the fringes of the assembly's winter session.

"It would be more effective to discover and punish ringleaders," Tran The Vuong said.

According to the report by Thanh Nien News, about 100 people are executed by firing squad each year, most for drug-related offences.

The report said many people executed for drug offences were merely couriers who transported drugs because of their situation or in ignorance of the law.

Tran The Vuong said the commission favoured a reduction in the number of crimes carrying the death penalty, although he would not specify which crimes would remain capital offences.

"It is a major issue that needs thorough study," he said.

Proposed changes
Viet Nam amended its Criminal Code in 2000, reducing the number of capital offences from 44 to 29.

It was reported in February 2006 that the Ministry of Public Security proposed a further reduction from 29 to 20 offences.

A spokesperson for the judicial department of the Ministry of Public Security said a reduction would be "in tune with the general tendency around the world, which Vietnam should follow".

Amnesty International said the proposal, which was submitted to the judicial reform commission for consideration, "reportedly recommends that economic crimes such as fraud and embezzlement, smuggling, counterfeiting and bribery should no longer be capital offences".

Viet Nam has continued to sentence people to death for non-violent economic crimes, despite the view of UN human rights experts that "the death penalty should be eliminated for crimes such as economic crimes and drug-related offences".

In February 2006, state media reported on proposals to change the method of execution, replacing firing squads with lethal injection.

A Police Ministry study reportedly said lethal injection would "minimise the psychological difficulties for executioners".

Related stories:
Another Australian spared in Viet Nam – 19 November, 2006
Viet Nam: Take action against the death penalty -- 24 June, 2006
Viet Nam easing the executioner's burden -- 26 February, 2006
To begin, good news in Viet Nam -- 18 February, 2006

death penalty, deterrence, drug trade, drugs, human rights, Viet Nam, Vietnam

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Mirza Tahir Hussain: Safe, free and home

UK national Mirza Tahir Hussain has returned home from Pakistan following President Pervez Musharaff's decision to commute his death sentence.

Hussain had endured three trials, two death sentences, four stays of execution and eighteen years in prison.

President Musharaff commuted the sentence to life imprisonment on Wednesday 15 October. A life sentence in Pakistan usually means a minimum term of 14 years in prison, making him immediately eligible for release. He was freed on Friday and he flew out for the UK the same day.

Hussain was scheduled to hang after 31 December, when a fourth stay of execution was due to expire.

After his family received confirmation of the decision, his brother Amjad said: "I welcome the news and I'm grateful to President Musharraf that he has taken this decision on humanitarian grounds.

"We are near the finishing line. At last, this 18 years of nightmare appears to be coming to an end."

Amjad Hussain said his brother would need time to recover and adjust after his years of imprisonment.

"There will be help and there will be counselling, he will have the best he can get.

"He needs to catch up on all the news that he's missed, the world has moved on and he's been living a life of standstill for the last 18 years," he said.

The BBC News website quoted a statement read on Mirza Hussein's behalf after his release: "It has been a tremendous strain to be separated from my family and loved ones.

"Freedom is a great gift. I want to use this freedom to get to know my family again, to adjust back to living here and to come to terms with my ordeal.

"My thoughts remain with all the prisoners I have left behind."

Under the shadow
Hussain was convicted of murdering taxi driver Jamshed Khan who died in Punjab Province on 17 December 1988. He had always claimed he was physically and sexually assaulted at gunpoint by the taxi driver, and the gun went off in the struggle that followed.

He was first sentenced to death in 1989, later reduced to life, before being acquitted of all charges in 1996. His case was then referred to the religious Federal Shariat Court and in 1998 he was sentenced to death for robbery involving murder, despite the Court's acknowledgement that no robbery was involved.

One of the three judges in his sharia court trial found that police had "fabricated evidence in a shameless manner".

The taxi driver's family later rejected an offer of blood money under Islamic law and insisted that the death sentence be carried out.

Amnesty International (AI), along with other organisations, argued he was convicted after an unfair trial and said "under no circumstances" should the sentence be upheld.

President Musharaff rejected a mercy petition, and he said in October that he did not have the power to override the judgement of a sharia court. But campaigners pointed out that article 45 of the constitution gave him the power to commute "any sentence passed by any court".

Later reports suggested the president was looking for legal grounds to commute the sentence.

UK campaign
Amjad Hussain led a strong campaign for clemency across the UK, including Amnesty International UK, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Catholic Church. Amjad reportedly gave up his job as a computer scientist to lead the campaign for his brother's freedom.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened on Hussain's behalf, and Prince Charles made a direct appeal for mercy following an official meeting with President Musharaff in Islamabad on 30 October.

Related stories:
Pakistan: Fourth reprieve for Mirza Hussain -- 22 October, 2006
Call for abolition: Pakistan columnist -- 17 October, 2006
Pakistan: Thousands in "brutal" system – 12 October, 2006
Pakistan: Hanging delayed, but how long? -- 03 October, 2006
UK pressure over Pakistan hanging -- 01 October, 2006

Pakistan, Mirza Tahir Hussain, Amjad Hussain, death row

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Another Australian spared in Viet Nam

A fifth Australian national has been spared execution in Viet Nam, rewarding Australian government appeals and its co-operation in joint drug operations.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer announced this week that the death sentence against Trinh Huu, 53, had been commuted to life imprisonment.

He said Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet commuted Trinh's death sentence following diplomatic representations from the Australian government.

As in previous cases, the Vietnamese government cited humanitarian grounds and their country's good relationship with Australia as reasons for the decision.

Trinh was sentenced to death in December last year for trafficking about 2 kilograms of heroin. He was arrested near the Vietnam-Cambodia border in December 2004.

The Age newspaper reported in February this year that Trinh was arrested by Vietnamese police working with the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

A spokesperson for Justice Minister Chris Ellison confirmed that Trinh's arrest "was the result of co-operation between Australian and Vietnamese authorities regarding a large drug syndicate".

The AFP has been criticised for its co-operation with Indonesian police, following the April 2005 arrest of a group of Australian citizens known as the "Bali 9". The AFP provided crucial information that led to the monitoring, arrest and prosecution of the group for trying to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin to Australia.

Six members of the Bali 9 have been sentenced to death for drug smuggling offences.

Clemency for foreign nationals
Viet Nam has only executed one foreign national since 1975, when it shot a Canadian woman of Vietnamese origin, Nguyen Thi Hiep, on 25 April 1999.

Five Australians have had their death sentences commuted in Viet Nam since 2003. In all five cases the Australian government made strong representations to the government of Viet Nam appealing for the sentences to be commuted.

In February 2006 President Tran Duc Luong commuted the death sentences of two Australians to life imprisonment, citing "humane tradition" and the good bilateral relationship between Australia and Viet Nam. He spared convicted heroin smugglers Mai Cong Thanh, an Australian citizen, and Nguyen Van Chinh, an Australian permanent resident.

The death sentence against Tran Van Thanh, convicted of heroin trafficking, was commuted to life in prison in August 2005 on the basis of humanitarian grounds and the strong relationship between Viet Nam and Australia.

Le My Linh, a 43-year old Sydney woman, was granted presidential clemency in July 2003 following appeals from the Australian government. The president again cited humanitarian grounds when commuting her sentence to life in prison.

Vietnamese citizens have not been so lucky. According to Amnesty International, there were 21 known executions in 2005 and at least 65 people sentenced to death, but "the real number is believed to be much higher".

Related stories:
World Day call for Australian leadership -- 10 October, 2006
UN: Australia should tackle drugs penalty -- 29 September, 2006
Australia's double standards under pressure -- 13 September, 2006
Firing squad for six of Bali nine -- 10 September, 2006
Australian police & the firing squad -- 19 February, 2006
To begin, good news in Viet Nam -- 18 February, 2006

death penalty, Vietnam, Viet Nam, human rights, drugs, drug trade

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

China: Judges try to limit death penalty

China's most senior judges have urged courts to restrain their use of the death sentences in criminal cases, the latest sign the government is attempting to reign in the country's massive use of the death penalty.

Chinese legal experts estimate between 8,000 and 10,000 people are executed each year, following trials that human rights organisations describe as routinely unfair.

On 31 October, the Chinese government introduced reforms requiring the Supreme People's Court to review all death sentences handed down by provincial courts. The new measure will take effect from 1 January 2007.

According to the Xinhua newsagency, Xiao Yang, the President of the Supreme People's Court, urged courts to exercise "extreme caution" when handing down death sentences and said that every judgement should "stand the test of time".

"In cases where the judge has legal leeway to decide whether to order death, he should always choose not to do so," Xiao Yang said.

The death sentence should be reserved for only an "extremely small number" of serious offenders, he said.

Xiao Yang also said a death sentence should not generally be given to a convict who surrendered to police, or who helped police solve crimes.

"Judges should be very cautious, as if walking on thin ice, when it comes to the death penalty. They should ensure the facts and the evidence are all clear and the verdict is issued in accordance with law," Xiao Yang said.

The vice president of the Supreme People's Court, Jiang Xingchang, stressed that appeals against death sentences should be heard in open court, and courts should record appeals on video-tape.

Related stories:
China reforms good, but not enough -- 08 November, 2006
China: Supreme Court review from January -- 01 November, 2006
China to video death penalty appeals -- 28 May 2006
China to retain death penalty, with reforms -- 13 Mar 2006

, law reform, , human rights

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

China reforms good, but not enough

Human rights groups have welcomed reforms to the death penalty in China, but say the changes fail to address the unfair trials, secrecy and widespread use that characterise the country's death penalty system.

The Chinese government passed new legislation last week reinstating a single national process of review for all death sentences. From 1 January 2007, the Supreme People's Court will review all death sentences handed down by provincial courts.

Amnesty International (AI) said the changes were "welcome" but people facing the death penalty would still be unlikely to receive fair trials. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the reforms would not be effective if China did not disclose how many people were executed each year.

"This new legislation will possibly help improve the quality of trials for those facing the death penalty in China - and may also reduce the number of executions," said Purna Sen, AI's Asia-Pacific Programme Director.

"But there is a danger that it could also further entrench the death penalty system in China, unless it is accompanied by other measures, including full transparency on the use of the death penalty nationwide and a reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death," Purna Sen said.

Around 68 crimes attract the death penalty in China, including non-violent offences such as tax fraud, embezzling state property and accepting bribes.

Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Unless the government discloses how many people it executes each year, the reform isn't meaningful."

"Hiding the numbers might save the government embarrassment, but this is not acceptable. Without releasing basic public information such as the overall number of executions, the type of crime that led to the sentence, and basic data about the executed, meaningful penal reform still has not been achieved," she said.

Both organisations agreed that the reforms did not go far enough, and would not address the serious human rights violations in the use of the death penalty in China.
AI expressed fears that, even with the new process of review, "those facing the death penalty are unlikely to receive a fair trial in line with international human rights standards".

"Trials in China are generally marked by a lack of prompt access to lawyers, lack of presumption of innocence, political interference in the judiciary and the failure to exclude evidence extracted under torture," AI said.

Sophie Richardson from HRW said: "Having a higher court review death penalty sentences is a good first step, but much more needs to be done."

"The government must also work to ensure that courts are independent and that defendants have adequate legal representation. Otherwise, this reform will signal only very limited progress," she said.

Related story:
China: Supreme Court review from January -- 01 November, 2006

, law reform, , human rights

Friday, 3 November 2006

Singapore: Took Leng How hanged

Breaking news

The Singapore government this morning hanged Malaysian man Took Leng How. He had been convicted of the October 2004 murder of an eight year-old girl.

A report by Malaysia's national newsagency Bernama said his body was later released to family members, according to a prison official.

President S.R.Nathan's Principal Secretary wrote to defence lawyers at the beginning of last week, informing them an application for clemency had been rejected. He said the president had consulted with the Cabinet and decided the death sentence would stand.

Last week Took was visited in prison by his wife, 24, and their 3 year-old son.

Prisoners sentenced to death in Singapore are often executed within two weeks of the rejection of their application for presidential clemency.

Australian national Van Tuong Nguyen was executed for drug trafficking on 2 December 2005, six weeks after the announcement that his bid for clemency had been turned down. The hanging was carried out despite numerous appeals from the Australian government, widespread protest in the Australian community and appeals from two Popes.

The timing of today's execution suggests the Singapore government may have been attempting to minimise the level of protest at the imminent hanging. Members of Took's family had collected the signatures of more than 34,000 Singaporeans on a petition appealing for clemency.
Related story:
Singapore: Took Leng How facing gallows -- 27 October, 2006

Singapore, death penalty, execution, Asia death penalty

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

China: Supreme Court review from January

All death sentences handed down in China will be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court from 1 January 2007, a move senior judges have claimed will help prevent wrongful convictions.

A standing committee of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislative body, yesterday amended the law on the country's courts, requiring all death penalties handed down by provincial courts to be reviewed by the SPC.

China is the world's leader in executions, with an estimated toll of between 8,000 and 10,000 executions each year, although the true figure is a closely guarded 'state secret'.

Chinese government newsagency Xinhua said yesterday's amendments were "believed to be the most important reform on capital punishment in China in more than 20 years".

The China Daily newspaper described the move as "a major step to safeguard human rights".

Appeal and review
The amendment to the Organic Law on the People's Courts separates an appeal against a conviction from the new process reviewing the appropriateness of the sentence.

SPC president Xiao Yang said a convicted person would appeal the verdict to provincial courts, but the SPC would be required to review and ratify all death sentences handed out.

According to Xinhua, Xiao described the change as "an important procedural step to prevent wrongful convictions".

"It will also give the defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to have their opinions heard," Xiao said.

China Daily reported before the standing committee vote that the proposed review would apply only to death sentences handed down in provincial courts.

The report said the revision submitted to the committee stated: "Cases in which the death sentence has been issued should be submitted to the Supreme People's Court for approval except in those cases in which the judgments were issued by the Supreme People's Court itself."

After increasing criticism
The amendments introducing SPC review of capital cases come after intense – and rare – public criticism of miscarriages of justice in China's court system in recent years.

Official media have permitted at times angry discussion of high-profile murder cases, where police had used torture to secure confessions but the 'murder victim' appeared alive after their alleged killer had been executed.

Human rights organisations have long criticised provincial courts of political interference, corruption and poorly trained judges.

Even official newsagency Xinhua acknowledged yesterday that "the practice of provincial courts handling both death sentence appeals and conducting final reviews began to encounter increasing criticism in recent years for causing miscarriages of justice".

"Since 2005, China's media have exposed a series of errors in death sentence cases and criticized courts for lack of caution in meting out capital punishment," Xinhua said.

BBC NEWS said Jerome Cohen, a US expert on China's legal system, called the move to Supreme Court review a "step in the right direction", which he said showed that senior members of the judiciary were increasingly concerned by the use of the death penalty.

He said the legal system required further fundamental reform of death penalty legislation to change the way capital cases were tried and appealed.

Courts preparing
China's courts have taken a number of steps this year that the government has claimed would reform the handling of capital cases.

Through 2006 the SPC has been preparing for the introduction of the review process, establishing three new criminal tribunals and recruiting and training new judges.

In February 2006, Xiao Yang announced that after July all appeals against death sentences would be heard in open court, replacing the previous practice of closed-door judicial review of capital cases.

Related stories:
Political questions over China's new appeal judges -- 02 Jul 2006
China to video death penalty appeals -- 28 May 2006
China: Death penalty cases will soon be reviewed -- 09 Apr 2006
China to retain death penalty, with reforms -- 13 Mar 2006
Open courts to hear China’s death row appeals -- 26 Feb 2006
China acknowledges death penalty abolition trend -- 13 Mar 2006
China's world record - 8000 dead? -- 28 Feb 2006

, law reform,