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Asia's 'grim view on drug crime'

Death penalty record underscores region's tough policies

By Marianne Bray

Kim Nguyen, right, heads into Singapore's Changi Prison Thursday for her final visit with her son.


• Singapore's death penalty dates to its days as a British colony. Murder, kidnapping, treason, firearms offenses and drug trafficking are punishable by death.

• Amnesty International said in 2004 that about 420 people had been hanged in Singapore since 1991, mostly for drug smuggling, giving the country of 4.4 million people "possibly the highest execution rate in the world relative to its population."

• Only six people sentenced to death in Singapore have been granted clemency since 1965.

Sources: Reuters, Amnesty International, Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs


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Capital Punishment
Justice and Rights

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- At dawn on Friday, a hangman at Changi Prison in Singapore placed a hood over the head of drug trafficker Van Nguyen, put a noose around his neck and opened a trap door in a "long-drop" procedure that killed the Australian citizen.

The death sentence for the 25-year former salesman was handed down after he was arrested at Changi airport while transiting from Cambodia to the Australian city of Melbourne in 2002, carrying nearly 400 grams (14 ounces) of heroin.

The city-state enacted tough drug laws in 1975 which made the death sentence mandatory for trafficking in more than 15 grams (half an ounce) of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine or 500 grams of cannabis.

The mandatory penalty means trial judges have no option but to impose a death sentence on those who are convicted, according to a 2004 Amnesty International report.

But Singapore is not alone in taking a tough stand on drug crimes.

As more and more nations around the world abolish capital punishment -- out of 196 nations Amnesty keeps a tab on, just 75 retain the death penalty --parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia favor it.

Asia is the region where the most executions are carried out, with China, Vietnam and Singapore heading the list, according to Amnesty International.

Of 20 countries in Asia, only four nations -- Bhutan, Cambodia, Nepal and East Timor -- have abolished the death penalty, according to a 2005 U.N. report on capital punishment.

Three other nations -- Sri Lanka, Laos and Myanmar -- still subscribe to the death penalty, but have not carried out executions in more than 10 years.

China is the world's leading executioner, Amnesty International says, with the group quoting a senior official as saying the nation executes around 10,000 people each year.

Across Asia, capital punishment is used widely for drug-related crimes in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand.

"Most places in Asia take a very grim view on drug crime," says Hugh Whitby, secretary at Amnesty International Hong Kong. "This is where trafficking goes on so that is why it's taken seriously."

East Asia -- particularly Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam -- is a major source of opium and heroin for the world market, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

'We have a responsibility'

In an effort to stop Singapore from becoming a narcotics hub, more than 420 prisoners have been hanged in Singapore since 1991, most of them for drug trafficking, according to Amnesty International. That figure is "shocking," Amnesty said.

Singapore has the highest execution rate in the world relative to its population, according to the 2005 U.N. report. An average of 6.9 people were executed per 1 million over 1999 to 2003, the report states.

The figure is nearly twice as much as for the nation with the second-highest rate of executions, Saudi Arabia at 3.66.

Defending the city-state's stance, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo wrote to Australian counterpart Alexander Downer in November, saying the amount of pure heroin Nguyen was carrying would have provided 26,000 doses to drug addicts.

"We ... have a responsibility to protect the people of Singapore from the scourge of drug addiction, which has destroyed many lives and inflicted great suffering on many families," he wrote.

Few public records

With the exception of the United States, international execution statistics are difficult to obtain because nations with such penalties keep their records a closely guarded secret.

Vietnam's prime minister, for example, issued a decree in January 2004 that makes reporting and disseminating of death penalty statistics a "state secret," according to an Amnesty annual report on the country.

In a July 2005 report, U.N. head Kofi Annan lamented the lack of accounting for death sentences, saying many nations who use them did not give any information on the number imposed, appeals allowed, the age or the sex of the offender nor type of offence.

In a bid to cast some light on what is going on in the gallows, the Australian Coalition against the Death Penalty has kept a tally of reported executions.

While it is by no means representative, it shows that out of 242 reported executions in 2005, more than 10 percent were carried out for drug crimes in nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Singapore, Iran and China.

Behind China and Iran, Vietnam was the world's third-ranked executor, with 64 people reported killed in 2004. That same year it sentenced 88 people to death, half for drug offenses, according to Amnesty International.

The quantities of drugs that can trigger death across Asia can be small.

In Thailand, possessing 20 grams of more of a Class A drug (which includes ecstasy, amphetamines) at an exit point is regarded as trafficking, and if found guilty, an offender will be punished with death

In Vietnam, tough laws introduced in 1997 mean that anyone found possessing 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of heroin or five kilograms (11 pounds) of opium will face the death penalty.

Indonesia -- under the spotlight because of a number of Australians implicated in drug crimes -- has 54 people under the sentence of death, with 30 of those facing execution convicted of drug-related crimes, Amnesty reports.

Australians split

The fate of Vietnamese-born Nguyen -- who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and moved to Australia with his mother and twin brother when he was 6 months old -- had split the public back home.

Canberra repeatedly pleaded for clemency, arguing that Nguyen had no previous convictions and could help in any drug investigation if he was allowed to live.

That view has been echoed more widely by human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, who argue the right to life is a fundamental one.

But just two days before his scheduled execution, 47 percent of Australians agreed he should be hanged, 46 percent said he should not and 7 percent were undecided, according to a poll carried out by Roy Morgan International.

More than half (57 percent) of Australians believe that if an Australian citizen is convicted of trafficking drugs in a country where the death penalty applies, it should be carried out.

'It's their country, and if they choose to make those rules we should be prepared to travel under those rules," one respondent said.

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