Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Viet Nam: Life, and death, sentences for drugs

In the past month, two Vietnamese-born western citizens have seen very different outcomes in appeals against their sentences for drug offences.

The legal charity Repreive announced in early April that UK citizen Le Manh Luong was granted clemency by President Nguyen Minh Triet.

Repreive led a high-profile campaign on behalf of Mr Luong, who was sentenced to death in November 2006.

He was convicted along with three Vietnamese defendants for trafficking 339 kilograms of heroin through Viet Nam to Hong Kong and China.

In contrast, in mid-March an appeal court increased to death the sentence given to Vietnamese-Australian Jasmine Luong, according to an AFP report.

Ms Luong was arrested in Tan Son Nhat airport in February 2007 with nearly 1.5 kilograms of heroin hidden in her luggage and shoes.

Prosecutors appealed against the original life sentence imposed in December 2007.

Clemency hope
She now has the right to appeal to the president for clemency, and the Sydney Morning Herald reported the Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were expected to support an appeal.

The decision to grant clemency to Mr Luong should raise hopes that she would also be successful in having her death sentence overturned.

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

Another Australian citizen, Tony Manh, is waiting for a response to his application for clemency, after an appeal court confirmed his death sentence in November 2007 for heroin trafficking.

'Debt forced decision'
According to the report by the Sydney Morning Herald, Ms Luong was expected to argue in her application for clemency that she agreed to carry the drugs to pay her estranged husband's gambling debts.

The newspaper said she claimed she was offered $US15,000 (AUD$16,620) by an unidentified man to carry the drugs to Sydney, and given $US4700 payment in advance.

Her two children were being cared for by relatives in Sydney.

'What is heroin?'
According to information released by Reprieve, Mr Luong suffered from brain damage after his house was bombed by a US B-52 bomber during the Viet Nam War.

The organisation said he suffered from clinical depression and displayed suicidal tendencies, and his lawyer believed the other defendants used him as a scapegoat, knowing of his mental health issues.

Mr Luong reportedly asked the court during his trial questions such as: "What is heroin?" and "What is a weapon?"

His niece and family spokesperson, Thanh Le, said in a Reprieve statement that "he will [now] have the horrific ankle and wrist shackles removed".

"My uncle’s death sentence has put an incredible strain on the family but we have been overwhelmed by the support for him," she said.

The fate of Mr Luong's Vietnamese co-defendants has not been reported.

Related stories:
Drug penalty violates international law -- 06 May, 2007
Viet Nam death penalty "not deterring drugs" -- 25 November, 2006
Another Australian spared in Viet Nam – 19 November, 2006
Viet Nam: Take action against the death penalty -- 24 June, 2006
To begin, good news in Viet Nam -- 18 February, 2006

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