Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Trade undisturbed by Singapore execution

Singapore's Prime Minister visited Australia in mid-June and both governments agreed that the "difficult issue" of a hanging would not interrupt a strong and lucrative relationship.

On 14 June a 19-gun salute welcomed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Parliament House in Canberra for official talks on trade and security issues.

Mr Lee's visit, his first as prime minister, came nearly seven months after the Singapore Government hanged convicted Australian drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen.

The execution was carried out on 2 December 2005 despite repeated appeals for clemency from the Australian government and widespread protest in the Australian community.

'Could not be closer'
At a joint press conference at Parliament House, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said "Australia and Singapore could not be closer", and referred to the two countries' common interests in strategic, defence and free trade issues.

Prime Minister Lee said the relationship between the two countries was "in good shape" despite having had "some difficult issues to deal with over the last year".

His remarks were widely interpreted to refer to the execution of Van Nguyen and disagreements over Singapore's access to Australian international aviation routes.

Mr Lee said these issues were handled "within the overall understanding that we are really strategic partners, Singapore with an interest in having Australia engaged in the region and Australia working with Singapore as a long term friend".

"These are issues which we can manage and keep in proportion as we move forward," he said.

Singapore is Australia's eight largest trading and investment partner and its largest trade and investment partner in ASEAN.

Death penalty to stay
When asked whether Singapore was going to soften its policy of executing or others convicted of drug crime, Mr Lee said the death penalty was "part of our criminal justice system, that applies in particular to drug traffickers whether they’re Singaporeans or foreigners".

"It is not targeted at Australians or any particular country but it is a set of laws which apply in Singapore in which we have to enforce impartially and which we will continue to do so."

In an interview with The Australian newspaper prior to his visit, Mr Lee said he accepted many Australians were opposed to the death penalty, but he said many also supported his government's policy.

"I don't think Australian pressure on high-profile cases like these will cause any Southeast Asian nation to change its position on the death penalty," he said.

Following the execution in December, Amnesty International Australia criticised the Australian government's "selective opposition" to the death penalty.

"Australia cannot support the death penalty when it is convenient and then argue that Australian citizens should be the only people spared execution," the organisation said.

"Australia should take a principled stance against the death penalty and not be afraid to express its views throughout the region. It is not unrealistic to expect Australia to take a strong and unapologetic position on such a cruel and inhuman punishment."

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