Saturday, 16 August 2008

Australia defends selective appeals for life

The Australian government has again opened itself up to accusations of double standards over the death penalty, with the confirmation it would only consistently oppose the execution of Australian citizens.

Foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith said this week he would raise the cases of three Australians on death row in Indonesia but not the three convicted Bali bombers.

Australian newspapers reported that Cabinet recently discussed whether the government could argue more effectively -- and avoid accusations of hypocrisy in Asia -- if it opposed all executions (stories here and here).

"I'm not going to indicate what may or may not have been discussed at Cabinet, but our position is quite straightforward. We don't support the use of capital punishment," Smith reportedly told Australia's Nine Network.

"When an Australian overseas has been convicted and is subject to capital punishment as a sentence, we make representations on behalf of Australian citizens.

"When it comes to other individuals who aren't Australian citizens, we'll make a judgment on a case-by-case basis as to whether it's appropriate to make representations or to join in representations at a regional or multilateral level."

The report said Smith pointed to Australia's recent involvement in international appeals for Iran to stop executing children.

"But the Prime Minister and I have both made clear that we don't propose to make representations on behalf of terrorists who have been subject to the death penalty," he said.

"So I won't be making any individual representations so far as the Bali bombers are concerned."

New Zealand's Prime Minister Helen Clark said at a media conference on 21 July that her government did not support the execution of the bombers.

"The New Zealand Government does not support the death penalty under any circumstances," she said.

"Clearly these men are guilty of heinous crimes and those crimes, in any jurisdiction, would justify them [getting] very serious penalties available under law but the New Zealand Government will not and does not support the death penalty."

Government silence
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said last October, when he was opposition leader, that he would only speak out against the execution of Australians overseas.

Rudd humiliated his opposition colleague Robert McClelland, now commonwealth attorney-general, scolding him for public remarks that Australia should consistently oppose executions.

"When it comes to the question of the death penalty, no diplomatic intervention will ever be made by any government that I lead in support of any individual terrorist life," Rudd said at the time.

Drawing a line -- against comment
The language used by Rudd in October 2007 and Smith this week refers to no "diplomatic resources" or "individual representations" being devoted to appeals in terrorist cases.

The policy appears to mean that ministers will not draw any public link between the government's policy of "opposition" to the death penalty and the execution of a non-Australian.

In practice, it is therefore likely that the Australian government will take no consistent public position on the execution of foreigners, apart from some exceptions determined on "a case-by-case basis".

Although there have been claims a Rudd government would push for abolition of the death penalty through multilateral forums, there has so far been no public sign that the new government is doing anything new at the international level.

Amnesty International Australia has argued over several years that the country undermined its credibility in opposing the death penalty if it only took a stand when Australian lives were at stake.

Principally hypocritical
The new Labor government's position on the death penalty is similar to the policy of the previous conservative government -- with one important difference.

Under former Prime Minister John Howard, the Liberal-National government claimed it opposed the death penalty "consistently" and "in principle", but it only made representations when Australian citizens faced death.

However this inconsistency was further undermined when Howard and senior government ministers repeatedly indicated their support for particular executions being carried out.

Related stories:
'Only Australians' should be spared execution -- 06 January, 2008
No Australian government will oppose terrorist executions -- 10 October, 2007
Australia: Rudd would oppose death penalty -- 24 June, 2007
Australia 'should act against death penalty' -- 03 August, 2006


Anonymous said...

Please read full article about the consistent failures of Amnesty International, unless you oppose freedom of speech in your blog.

Tim Goodwin, ADP said...

Happy for you to have your freedom of speech anonymous, whoever you are. It's a shame you don't feel able to let people know who is speaking.

mikeb302000 said...

I sometimes write about the death penalty on my blog. Most of the commenters are rabid pro death penalty folks. Why is that?

L. Atkins (human rights and free speech activist) said...

To mikeb302000: because while the self-righteous Amnesty continues doing the same thing it has done over 50 years and expecting different results, most people will be stuck on pro death.

Meanwhile, Tim Goodwin provides everyone with his Blog (regurgitated news stories) whilst collecting donations. Goodwin seems to do little else. Unless human rights groups do things "his way" he simply ignores their hard work against death penalty.

Read on folks. Very Interesting.

By: Australian Coalition Against Death Penalty (ACADP)

Van Tuong Nguyen, was hanged in Changi Prison on December 02, 2005. He was the fourth Australian to be hanged for drug-trafficking.

Nguyen was arrested at Changi airport, in transit from Cambodia to Australia, for trafficking 396.2g of heroin, which was strapped to his body. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003. Nguyen claimed that he was carrying the heroin in a bid to pay off debts incurred by his twin brother (legal fees for drug-trafficking charges and other serious criminal charges).

Under instructions from Nguyen's defence lawyer Lex Lasry, (his first ever death penalty case) Nguyen's case was deliberately kept low-key and the media remained completely silent on the case, until the last weeks prior to the execution.

On March 23, 2004, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that ACADP had been inundated with messages from Australians offering support for Nguyen. The news article can be found at ...

On March 24, 2004, The Age newspaper in Melbourne reported a similar story. The news article can be found at ...

On October 25, 2004, Nguyen's appeal to the Singapore High Court was denied. ACADP wrote a polite heartfelt letter to Singapore President S.R. Nathan, requesting him to consider clemency for Nguyen. A copy of the letter was forwarded to Lasry and to various worldwide human rights groups.

The following day, excerpts of the letter were read on Melbourne Radio 3AW by Neil Mitchell. At the time, Prime Minister John Howard was being interviewed by Mitchell concerning the Nguyen case. Howard acknowledged ACADP's letter and stated that the Australian Government, opposed to the use of capital punishment, would be making a plea for clemency.

Sadly however, Lasry warned ACADP that under no circumstances were we, and others, to say or do anything that might upset the Singapore Government. "If Singaporeans are antagonized Nguyen will be hanged. They don't like white people telling them how to run their country," was the stern warning from Lasry. Hello - opponents to capital punishment in Australia come in all colors from diverse backgrounds.

Opponents against the hanging were instructed to write nice letters, sign nice petitions, light nice candles, and hold nice "silent" vigils - but nothing more. History around the world shows that these niceties very rarely, if ever, succeed in overturning a scheduled execution.

ACADP worked with Singaporean human rights lawyers and activists in difficult circumstances, in the struggle to save Nguyen from going to the gallows. But stealth powerful forces blocked, ignored and gagged our every efforts. Lasry insisted that nobody was to go anywhere near his client - even if it meant the slight possibility that his client's life could be spared.

Singaporean high-profile human rights lawyer M. Ravi, (highly experienced in death penalty cases) offered to work pro-bono to help save Nguyen from going to the gallows. On numerous occasions Lasry informed Ravi and other human rights activists to butt-out of the case, refusing to discuss any new avenues that could save Nguyen from the gallows.

In an email to Ravi, Lasry wrote: "Do not be under any misapprehension. You are not to go anywhere near my client and you are not instructed to take any steps on his behalf. I have no obligation to further explain our position to you and I do not propose to do so."

ACADP informed death penalty co-ordinator Tim Goodwin from Amnesty International Australia, of ACADP's concerns regarding the Nguyen case. To our astonishment, we were advised that Amnesty International is only interested in campaigns and nothing more.

Ravi, a vocal anti-death penalty campaigner in the city-state, wrote to The United Nations: "I humbly urge your good office to urgently intervene in stopping Nguyen’s execution, which would be a serious miscarriage of justice and would violate Singapore’s constitution." The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary, and arbitrary executions Philip Alston, reported that Nguyen’s execution would violate international legal standards.

Hence, Ravi urged Lasry to take the case to the United Nations International Court of Justice (also known as The World Court), to which both countries are signatories.

Initially, Lasry told media reporters that this was not on his agenda. Then, at almost the eleventh-hour Lasry changed his mind and asked the Australian Government to look into it. But Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, considered that it was "unlikely" that the Singaporean Government would agree to the ruling of the International Court of Justice.

ACADP made numerous phone calls to Canberra, on behalf of our organisation, and also on behalf of many Singaporean human rights activists who had informed ACADP that they were in hiding - too afraid to speak-out against the hanging of Nguyen due to possible consequences from the authorities. Amnesty International Australia was advised of this, but remained silent and took no action.

Representatives for various MP's assured ACADP that the Australian Government was doing all it could. Shadow Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, emailed ACADP saying the Labor Party was doing all it could to prevent the hanging from going ahead. At this time, ACADP was receiving hundreds of emails daily, from Australia and overseas, against the upcoming execution of Nguyen.

However, when diplomatic niceties failed and it became obvious Nguyen would hang, the Australian Fairfax Press created a media circus, portraying Lasry as a legendary hero and Nguyen as a martyr. But the media hysteria proved too much too late. The majority public expressed anger and support for capital punishment on talk-back radio and letters to media editors, was at an all time high.

Despite repeated calls for clemency from the Australian and New Zealand Governments, including worldwide human rights activists and organisations, Singapore was determined Nguyen would swing. At 6:00 AM sharp, Nguyen was hanged inside Changi Prison. Soon after the execution, several Singaporean human rights activists tried to approach Nguyen's mother and brother at a service, to offer comfort and their condolences, but were refused when Lasry burst into a rage - with waving arms and fists he ordered the activists to leave.

Nguyen's body was flown back to Australia. A funeral service with all the trimmings was held at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne. The service was televised. This antagonized The Crime Victims Support Association saying it appeared to glamorise a convicted drug-trafficker.

The Premier of Victoria Steve Bracks, did not attend the funeral, saying he did not want to glorify Nguyen. ACADP published a memorial notice for Nguyen expressing sympathy to his family, but did not attend the funeral for the same reason as Bracks.

ACADP asked Lasry if he cared to comment regarding one of his less than professional emails sent to various individuals who had worked at all odds against the hanging. In an email to ACADP, Lasry replied: "There was a significant distance between our strategy and that of others."

When a human life is at stake, surely any and every strategy, which could mean even a slim chance of saving a human life, must be taken seriously and cannot simply be ignored.

Nguyen and his twin brother were born in a Thai refugee camp in 1980 after their mother Kim, fled Vietnam. At the age of six months, the boys and their mother were accepted as refugees and migrated to Australia.

Like the vast majority of people on death row, Nguyen's life was more difficult than easy - he made a terrible mistake and paid for it with his life - a barbaric, brutal, cruel, degrading, inhuman and uncivilised punishment that has no place in a modern-day criminal justice system. The Singapore Government has shown to be all of the above.

Prime Minister Howard warned Singapore that Australia would never forget the hanging of Van Tuong Nguyen. On February 23, 2006, the Australian Government rejected a bid by Singapore Airlines for permission to fly a permanent route between Sydney and the USA, which drew strong criticism from the Singapore Government. Obviously, an indication that Australian-Singapore relations have been strained.

A documentary film on Nguyen is in the final stages and will be released at a date yet to be advised. The film-makers contacted ACADP soon after Nguyen had been sentenced to death.

It has since become evident that right from the start of this case, there were people who knew that Nguyen would be executed. This leaves some unanswered questions; If the Australian Government had been deadly serious about saving Nguyen's life at any cost, why didn't the Australian Government employ the services of top-notch defence lawyers from the USA - known for their ultra expertise and long-time experience in death penalty cases? This could have been easily done, but it was not. Furthermore,
International law could have saved this young Australian man, yet for some unknown reason this final avenue was not pursued, neither by Lasry nor by the Australian Government. Why?

Life brings many lessons ... one important lesson is that some things are not always as they seem!

Tim Goodwin, ADP said...

L.Atkins, I do not collect donations for this blog and I am not involved in fundraising for any organisation.

As the profile indicates, this is a news blog. Many mainstream news stories disappear from the internet shortly after they are published. The blog is designed to collect information from these reports, along with stories about the work of human rights organisations around the region.

It's not a matter of 'ignoring' particular organisations. It’s a question of different organisations and individuals working together, towards the same goal.

I'd be interested to receive any public statements by ACADP or information about its current activities.