This is a very long post but it’s worth taking some time to read it or even stop and come back to it again.
This link provides information on Nguyen Tuong Van who was hanged a year ago in Changi Prison on the morning of 2 Dec 2005. The Asia Death Penalty blog is also Remembering Nguyen. I’m not trying to make him a martyr or anything on the first anniversary of his hanging. He committed a serious crime and he should’ve been severely punished BUT not executed. What follows are three news reports from the Australian media…….
Nguyen’s family suffering after hanging, 27 Nov 2006, The Age
The mother of an executed Australian drug smuggler has not come to terms with her son’s hanging in Singapore almost one year ago, parliament has heard.
This Saturday marks one year since Melbourne salesman Nguyen Tuong Van, 25, became the first Australian executed in 19 years.
Nguyen was convicted and condemned to die after being arrested at Changi Airport in late 2002 with almost 400 grams of heroin in his possession.
He was hanged in Singapore on December 2, 2005, after multiple appeals for clemency failed.
Labor MP Anna Burke said she had met with Nguyen’s mother Kim, who still had not come to terms with her son’s death.
“She sees herself now as the victim of this crime, of this execution,” she told the House of Representatives.
“She does not like to leave her home, she does not like to interact with people.
“It is just such a tragic waste of human life.”
Ms Burke said Nguyen should have been punished severely, but not executed.
“His execution has served no purpose,” she said.
“Since his death we haven’t stopped the drug trafficking, we haven’t stopped people stupidly going there and trafficking drugs, we’ve now had more Australians caught up in foreign countries who now will be facing execution.”
She said a church memorial service would be held to mark the anniversary of Nguyen’s death.
ÂÂ© 2006 AAP
Balloons to mark anniversary of hanging, 29 Nov 2006, The Australian
BALLOONS will be released into the sky on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the execution of convicted drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van.
Nguyen’s family and friends will attend a church service in Melbourne on Saturday, led by Catholic priest Father Peter Norden.
Nguyen, 25, was hanged in Singapore on December 2 last year after he was arrested with nearly 400g of heroin at Singapore’s Changi Airport in late 2002.
Father Norden said that after the service the family, including Nguyen’s mother Kim, would release balloons at another location “as a sign of hope”.
“It has been a very hard year and she (Kim) is looking for some spiritual hope,” he said.
Father Norden said Kim had sought solace with the church and had still not come to terms with the death of her son.
“She is devastated as any mother would be at the loss of a son in such a cold way,” he said.
“I don’t think any family would get over it. It will be a thorn in her heart.”
Father Norden said no public events were planned and he hoped the media would not attend the service.
Nguyen dies, but “big fish” still active, 2 Dec 2006, Sydney Morning Herald
His path to drug trafficking was more of a stumbling descent than a coldly calculated risk, writes Nick McKenzie.
The Mr Big of the deal promised it would be a cakewalk. But sitting there as the plane dived through the Singapore smog, with a block of heroin strapped to his back, Nguyen Tuong Van must have been sweating. A warning had just been piped through the plane: “Severe penalties apply to those caught with prohibited goods.” Nguyen would have heard it. He must have.
Every time a fellow passenger walked down the aisle, he held his breath. What if they knew?
But he didn’t walk to the toilet and dump the drugs. Maybe if the flight attendant was more explicit: “Singaporean authorities put a rope around the neck of drug traffickers. As their body drops into a pit, the rope breaks the neck.” Nguyen would ponder this kind of death later. He would have hours upon hours to think about it. But, right then, he didn’t walk to the toilet. He didn’t dump the heroin. He was already thinking of his next flight, one bound for Sydney, the flight he would never catch.
His saga began months before at Top-One Karaoke, an upstairs bar in Melbourne’s Chinatown. It is a favourite with international students who sip on vodkas and mimic Asian pop stars and the likes of Britney Spears and Mariah Carey. It was early 2002 and Nguyen was just one of the crowd. A few drinks, some bad songs and then off to a club.
But this Friday night there were people down from Sydney. Alec* (not his real name) was among them. The 32-year-old was no stranger to Melbourne. Nguyen would claim later that after this first meeting, he saw Alec sell heroin to the owner of a pool hall. Spiky-haired and with a stutter, Alec had cash, a flash car (a gun-metal Lexus) and a reputation. He “dealt in big numbers”, according to Nguyen, a view confirmed later by senior police sources. A pound of heroin or ice, Alec was your man. For the twentysomething wannabe gangsters, drug dabblers and small-time pushers who hung around the game parlours, he was someone worth knowing. Nguyen knew this because he was no angel, either. During his two-hour interview with the Australian Federal Police in Singapore early last year, Nguyen told his story with an unnerving frankness. His responses to the 653 questions put to him – responses police believe were truthful – point to a more complex saga than that which emerged at the time of his hanging a year ago today.
Nguyen’s progression from part-time dealer and user to drug mule was a far more stumbling, directionless spiral than that portrayed in the media reports of a young man who had taken a mad risk to pay off his twin brother’s legal debts. In reality, the fatal decision to become a courier came after Nguyen had tried, but failed, to find others to take the risk.
Still, the passive manner in which he offered himself as a “mule” – in conjunction with a promise to a drug dealer – confirms the essence of Nguyen’s legal defence. He was small-fry, a bumbling first-time courier. And he was working for a drug importer who, to date, remains free in Sydney, a fact that still angers Nguyen’s lawyers. Lex Lasry, QC, says that in killing Nguyen, Singapore killed a crucial witness in an Australian prosecution that should have gone ahead.
But, as with some of the Bali nine, Nguyen’s police interview gives no satisfying answer as to why he made his trip. In his often stumbling answers, he is like a man who strolls casually off a cliff, without figuring out how he got so close to the precipice in the first place.
In early 2002, Nguyen was more of an onlooker in the drug scene. He knew some aspiring dealers keen for a crack at the easy riches that had come with the nation’s heroin flood. And he was not averse to a quick dollar. Drinking and clubbing with Alec soon led to the purchase of a few ecstasy tablets. Later, Nguyen accompanied a friend, Tim*, to Sydney, where Alec arranged the supply of a pound of crystal methamphetamine, or ice. Nguyen sat on the sidelines on this deal, just watching. The 22-year-old’s life still had promise, the chance of a path to something better.
Nguyen’s group of friends called each other “brother”. Some had been kicked out of home, spending their days at game parlours and shopping strips. But Nguyen and his mates wanted a change. In 2001, a bunch of them pitched in for the rent at a house at Brandon Park in south-east Melbourne. There were more bodies than bedrooms. But sticking together – brotherhood – gave a sense of possibility.
“The intention of having the house was for everyone to change their lives,” he would tell the police. “To get off the streets. I took the initiative of looking after them.”
Born in 1980 in a Thai refugee camp after his mother fled Vietnam, Nguyen had arrived in Australia aged six months. His single mother had worked long hours to pay for schooling for Nguyen and his twin brother, Khoa. In 1998, Nguyen was elected to Mount Waverley Secondary College’s student council and was compere at his year 12 valedictory dinner. He was part of the in-crowd, but also had time for those considered un-cool, nerds, losers. Nguyen’s sense of humour is what friends would later remember. But he also had drive. After leaving school, he mixed study with an attempt to start an internet company. He later described his occupation to police as “sales executive”.
But in 2002, things weren’t going to plan. Some of the “brothers” starting smoking dope. Those studying stopped attending classes. Nguyen saw less of his straighter friends. “It was chaotic because in the end our goals – our goals of, you know, changing our lives, you know, I don’t know what happened to these goals. We failed and, um, we started taking marijuana. I took marijuana.”
Most catastrophic events, human or natural, start small; a bad decision, a storm out at sea. In October 2002, Nguyen again bumped into Alec in Melbourne and mentioned he “was interested in doing something”. He wasn’t looking for anything too big; maybe some ice to move in Melbourne. A few days later, Nguyen received a call. “You wanna come to Sydney? We’ve got something to talk about.”
It takes about 20 minutes to get from Sydney Airport to the Pacific International Hotel in George Street in the heart of the CBD. After checking in, he walked around the corner to the park below Alec’s apartment. “I thought he had a drug deal planned. At the time I didn’t know, to what extent, you know, um, where his plans were going.”
Next to Alec was his Chinese girlfriend, quiet, fair-skinned, her hair pulled tightly back. Mixing English with Vietnamese, Alec revealed he was “organising for some stuff to come in”. He used the Vietnamese word for “white” to describe the goods.
As Nguyen later explained to the police: “He asked for me to scout for couriers.”
AFP: “What did you say when he asked you to scout for couriers?”
Nguyen: “Oh, shocked. Um, I didn’t know what to say. Um, it wasn’t what I expected but, um, eventually I agreed.”
Again that passivity, as if this were something that was happening to him, not something he had precipitated.
Nguyen put the feelers out. A Cambodian mate called Andrew* agreed but, several weeks later, pulled out. “I guess he was afraid to go and I just said, ‘Fine’.”
There was a “safety net”, a friend called Tony*. But he, too, thought better of it. Nguyen emailed Alec to tell him not all was lost.
“Well, I gave him my word that, um, I was committed to the trip and when the two people I had arranged, um, decided not to go, um, I felt obliged to take their place.”
Nguyen never fully explained this sense of loyalty. After all, a police interview is about evidence, not emotion. But the brief windows into his hesitation and reluctance revealed they would have been easily brushed aside by Alec’s bluster and assurances.
It was early December. Terrorism dominated the news. Victoria’s Bracks Government had just won the state election in a landslide. And Nguyen was in a Vietnamese restaurant in Cabramatta, taking orders.
“He [Alec] explained to me that I would be flying to Singapore and taking a connecting flight to Cambodia. And again I think we took another plane from somewhere in Cambodia to Phnom Penh.”
Instructions were issued on a need-to-know basis. Some would be sent to Nguyen’s email address. Alec assured Nguyen that the route had been tested.
“He seemed to know a fair bit of detail about what would happen at each checkpoint, where they would check me and where to lay low at the airport.” He was told to dress smartly and scope out Singapore airport on his way to Cambodia. At Phnom Penh airport somebody would be waiting.
Also at the Cabramatta restaurant was a man Nguyen knew only as “the Qantas steward”. He was, according to Nguyen, central to the plan. The steward was to arrange for someone else on the plane – most likely another steward – to approach Nguyen on the flight back to Sydney via Singapore and utter a key word, something about “basketball”. Nguyen was then to place the heroin in a bag in the plane’s toilets, before passing them on to the second courier.
“He [the Qantas steward] said that he had his own way of getting through.” Nguyen believed the steward’s airline connections would help circumvent customs. His belief, of course, was never tested.
Less than 24 hours later, on December 3, Alec and the Qantas steward walked Nguyen to the international gate at Sydney Airport. In Nguyen’s bag was $15,000 from Alec – $13,000 for the drugs and $2000 spending money. Alec had also paid for Nguyen’s airline ticket. It was the 22-year-old’s first trip out of Australia and he was flying first class.
Early December is an ideal time to be in Phnom Penh. The wet season is ending and the heat more bearable. Bars are full of hip locals and young backpackers. Ten bucks gets you drunk. Three-course meals cost even less. But Cambodia services other Western needs.
Cambodia’s corruption and crime has seen it become a transit point for the heroin produced in the golden triangle and the ice made by the scores of illegal laboratories across the region. A few thousand Western dollars can usually make a policeman look the other way. Or convince someone to take a risk. Drug dealers need the tiny and dispensable cogs who will swallow a condom or strap drugs to their body and board a plane. They need their Nguyens.
At the airport, a Cambodian in his 40s made a beeline towards him. Nguyen surmised later that “Anh” (a word which means elder brother in Vietnamese) was probably sent his photo by Alec, who had earlier photocopied his passport. Anh knew the game well. He avoided leaving any electronic records, like phone calls, that could link him to Nguyen. At Nguyen’s room at the Phnom Penh Pacific Hotel, Anh called Alec in Sydney. “[Alec] trusted him. And he [Anh] had a fair bit of respect for Alec.”
Day one in Cambodia was spent attempting to relax. Nguyen drifted around the city and ate as well as his nerves permitted. Day two was for business. In a cafe, Anh made a call and then passed the phone to Nguyen. It was Alec. “[Alec] asked me to follow his instructions to give him [Anh] the money and to email him if I had any problems.” Nguyen did as he was told. With the cash handed over, all he had to do was wait.
The next seven-odd days is covered by just a couple of questions in Nguyen’s police interview. After three days wandering the city, Nguyen took a taxi to visit a friend in Vietnam. After four days, Nguyen returned to Cambodia.
He was taken to the mechanic’s garage that doubled as Anh’s family home and handed two blocks of heroin wrapped in brown electrical tape, along with a box containing a coffee grinder, a heat sealer, doubled-sided tape and a Stanley knife. Nguyen had reached the business end of his trip.
In his hotel room, he began to follow Anh’s instructions. He unwrapped the brown tape. On one of the heroin blocks was the outline of a lion. The other depicted a dragon. Keeping the blocks separate, Nguyen broke them into small pieces with a hammer and then pulverised them with the grinder. He then placed the two piles of heroin into separate bags, sealed them and tried to attach them to his back. “I realised I couldn’t. Um, there was – I -I – I couldn’t understand how they wanted me to do that.”
The first moment of panic. Nguyen called Anh, who offered no advice. He tried Alec repeatedly with no luck. “I compromised it and improvised by putting one on my lower back and one on my abdomen.”
Nguyen would later stray from his instructions again, removing one of the packages and placing it in his carry-on luggage, a move which served only to increase the chance of the drugs being discovered.
Still, the first leg of the journey went to plan. Through Cambodian security, passport stamped and, within a few hours, Nguyen’s plane was diving through the Singapore smog. Cambodia was always going to be a breeze. In the Singapore transit lounge, Nguyen headed for an email outlet to contact Alec one last time. He was told that: “Everything will be all right. If you follow these instructions, nothing would happen.”
Boarding time. Almost there.
And then a hiccup. Outside gate C22, the X-ray machine beeped. Later it was said that security staff thought Nguyen looked suspicious. Inside, he must have been a wreck. They patted his back and found a lump. No, no, no, no, no. From that moment on, Nguyen Tuong Van was a dead man walking.
The key legal moments of the last three years of Nguyen’s life are well known. He was sentenced to be hanged in March 2004 under Singapore’s mandatory drug laws for trafficking 396 grams of heroin. An appeal failed, as did a bid for clemency, supported by the Federal Government and the Opposition, to Singapore’s President S.R. Nathan. Nguyen was hanged on December 2 last year.
But much of the detail of Nguyen’s last few years never made its way into the public arena. Reports that he found God on death row never fully reflected the depth of his discovery, detailed in his prison diaries. Friends and family still privately talk about Nguyen’s transformation on death row, his attachment to Christianity and his remarkable bravery in facing death.
And then there were the reports that Nguyen’s trip was made to pay off a debt owed by his brother Khoa, which in turn led to the media suggesting his brother (who had a drug convictions) bore responsibility for the trip. But Khoa knew nothing of his brother’s plan.
And those claiming an “international drug syndicate” organised Nguyen’s trip never offered any more details. Nguyen’s supporters referred to it to illustrate his “small fish” status. All the police said was that investigations were continuing.
Yet after Nguyen’s arrest, Alec still featured in his story. At first, Nguyen lied when questioned about who had given him his orders. The lie was an order in itself – Alec had told him to invent a fictional “big fish” called “Son” if Nguyen was caught. Yet in the same interview, Nguyen told the Singaporean police that he wasn’t being truthful.
In April 2003, when Nguyen was finally given access to his Australian lawyers, he offered up as many details as he could recall which was then passed on to the Australian police by his lawyers. An investigation was stepped up; Alec’s address, along with that of the so-called Qantas steward, were raided. Alec was charged with possessing a small amount of heroin, was convicted but did not go to jail. Instead, he was fined $2400.
Lasry, his lawyer, says many of the details Nguyen passed on were potentially verifiable; phone calls and numbers that could be tracked on call-charge records; an email address with stored correspondence; he remembered Alec had got a parking ticket outside the Cabramatta restaurant; he had taken a photo of Anh while in Cambodia. Crucially, there was also a second witness who had been at a meeting with Alec and Nguyen. This witness gave the federal police a statement and said he would be prepared to testify.
The next step was for Nguyen to give a statement to the Australian police, a record of what he could say in court. But again there were delays.
Finally, early last year, two federal police agents travelled to Singapore to inquire about “an allegation that between October 2002 and December 2002, Alec and [another Sydney-based organiser] were involved in an attempt to import heroin into Australia”. The interview was conducted in Changi prison on January 26 at 2.29pm in front of the two federal police and an unnamed Singaporean official.
For Nguyen’s legal team, it was another step towards firming up his status as a witness in a future Australian prosecution. They had already made it clear Nguyen was prepared to take the stand, albeit via video link from Changi prison.
Lasry was quietly hopeful. Singapore law allowed for the pardoning of a condemned trafficker if they gave evidence about a principal offender. Nguyen would still spend years in prison, but at least he would be alive. Lasry’s plan was to see if the Federal Government would press the case with Singapore.
With just over a month left in Nguyen’s life, Lasry began lobbying senior government figures in Canberra. He recalls being shocked at an impression that Australian authorities had informed the Government that Nguyen’s assistance with police had been of very little use. Time was now ticking. Lasry desperately sought a view from the federal police about Nguyen’s value as an informant. He was told to speak to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, which he says had advised the police that Nguyen’s evidence would not sustain a criminal prosecution.
“It was wrong … I still don’t really understand why and I still don’t accept there was not enough evidence.”
Lasry made repeated requests to the Director of Public Prosecutions to release its advice on why a case could not proceed. It replied that it could not do so because it was privileged. Another plea, 10 days before Nguyen’s execution, was met with the same response.
“Nguyen’s evidence was prima facie evidence. I am very disappointed why they chose to [not charge the organisers of Nguyen’s botched importation]. It still angers me,” says Lasry.
“I remember saying at the time that the one person in Australia celebrating Nguyen’s death is the person who procured his trip. No doubt he was very relieved that Nguyen was executed because the story couldn’t be told in a way that implicated him. It is horrible to think about but I am sure that is true.”
Nguyen was hanged at 6am, with the morning light still creeping into the grounds of Changi prison. With his death, his potential eye-witness testimony became dated – if not useless – police intelligence; a record only of what he might have said in a court, as well as a record of the evidence prosecutors advised could not sustain a criminal case.
Alec has remained a step ahead of police, who believe he remains active in Asian crime circles. He is described as a middle-ranking crime figure.
In the end, Nguyen’s police interview provides no real answers as to why a young Australian would risk a noose in Singapore or a firing squad in Bali for a few thousand dollars. Indeed, Nguyen told police a dollar figure was never even locked in. “It was never discussed.”
AFP: “You had no idea?”
If anything, his responses resonate only as a testament to bad decisions, stupidity and regret, told by a voice no longer heard.
“I asked him [Alec] many times, um, throughout the trip, um, that I trust – I told him I trusted him and that if there was anything I needed to know that I expected him to tell me so that, you know, I wouldn’t have too much going on in my mind. He said, um, ‘Don’t worry’, um, ‘as long as you look respectful, smart’, um, ‘calm and collected’, ah, ‘everything should be all right.’ “