Saturday, May 23, 2009

Van Tuong Nguyen

I don't think this is going to be a very happy post.

I'm pretty sure I know who this guy is.

He's the one who was found guilty of drug possession and THEN killed for it.

I've seen bits and pieces of the story before.

I know that Kevin Rudd let Nguyen use his Bible at some point; maybe hold it before being executed. I don't know.

I know his lawyer was Julian McMahon.  But I'm guessing it wasn't the actor.

All right. Lord Wiki. Tell me the sad story.

I don't know if I want to hear it.

 But I feel I should.

Nguyen was born on 17 August 1980. If he were still alive, he'd be celebrating his 29th birthday this August.

Birthday Website Time.

He's a Leo like Jack.

He's a 7 like me.

I picture a 7 Leo as someone who's passionate, entertaining, and well-educated.

Nguyen was a twin. He's the first twin I've researched. I think?

The twins were born in a refugee camp in Vietnam. The mother and her babies migrated soon after to Australia. Mommy Nguyen married a Vietnamese Australian when the twins were about seven. It seems the stepdad wasn't the best father. He beat the kids.

Nguyen went to school at St. Joseph's Primary School. Then he went to Mount Waverly Secondary College. I guess he would have been there in the late 1990's.

He had intentions to do university studies at Deakin University, but his financial situation prevented him from doing so.

He spent his young adult years working in various sales positions.

He started his own computer sales business in 1999. He would have been only nineteen at the time. That's pretty impressive.

Nguyen's twin got into some legal trouble. Lord Wiki says Nguyen wound up his business. I'm not sure I know what that means. I'm guessing he closed the business in order to have money to help his brother. Maybe?

Nguyen found a new job.

He took a long break from the job for six months. This was between June and December 2002. In his confession, Nguyen claimed to be on acne medicine that required him to take a four month leave. What? I don't get that. What kind of medicine would that be? Was Nguyen telling the truth? I have my doubts, but I guess it could be true. Maybe the medicine made him really drowsy. Maybe it made it hard for him to work?

Unlike Schapelle Corby, Nguyen doesn't deny carrying drugs. Well, he might have in the beginning. But at least in the end, he admitted to being involved with drug trafficking.

He claims he carried the drugs to help pay for his brother's legal fees. His brother got in trouble for drug trafficking himself; and he had also attacked someone with a Samurai knife. Yikes.

Nguyen wanted a quick way to pay back all the debts. He contacted someone who gave him Heroin to transport. The package was supposed to go from Cambodia to Melbourne. And it would pass through Singapore.

My parent were in Singapore recently. They liked it.

I'm scared of it. I'm scared of places that have strict drug laws. The funny thing is I've never done any drugs. I don't even drink. I've never tried to smoke anything. But I'm paranoid that someone's going to slip something into my backpack when I'm not looking.

Okay, now Lord Wiki says it's Thailand that Nguyen emigrated from. I'm confused. Is this a mistake? Or maybe the mom and the twins stopped in Thailand before coming to Australia. Who knows.....

Anyway, Lord Wiki says this drug trafficking adventure is the first time Nguyen went overseas since his emigration.

In Cambodia, he had to go to a garage to be with the drug people. They forced him to smoke some heroin. Why? Did they want him to become addicted? Can you be addicted the first time you try it? And was he really a Heroin virgin?

I've googled a bit here. I'm not getting any definite answers that I fully trust. But from what I'm gathering it seems that Heroin is at first a psychological addiction. Then soon it becomes a physical addiction.

In Vietnam, Nguyen was given instructions on how to hide the heroin. He was supposed to crush it up and strap packages of heroin to his body.

In Singapore, he waited at the airport. There he triggered a metal detector. The airport security folks found the drugs. Then Nguyen confessed to also having drugs in his checked luggage.

Lord Wiki says Nguyen had 396 grams of heroin. That's about fourteen ounces. It was more than enough to qualify him for Singapore's strict drug law death sentence.

I really don't know what to feel.

I'm sorry for this guy. I don't think he should have died. I wish he were still alive.

But do I think it's unfair that he died? I don't know. I think the laws of Singapore are pretty well known. Why would someone take the risk? I'm not going to sit here and be all self-righteous. Oh selling drugs are bad. You should go to school and get a job. You should be a decent citizen. I actually do believe in most of that stuff, but I live a privileged life. I don't know what it's truly like to feel financially desperate. My feeling is okay yeah....make an illegal delivery. Get your money. I can see the reasoning behind all that, but why take a job that forces you to go through Singapore?

Although maybe those jobs are the ones in which they are most hiring. And maybe those are the jobs that pay the most money. The higher risk...the higher the pay.

Nguyen went on death row in Changi prison.

An appeal was made on his behalf. It was rejected in October 2004.

On November 17 2005, his family got written notice of his execution. It was to happen on December 2 2005.

I just looked at my Livejournal entry for that day to see what was going on in my own life. That morning I announced that the day before my brother-in-law had received his new lungs. We were all so happy, relieved, and excited. It's funny how on the same date one family can experience something wonderful, and another can experience something horribly tragic.

John Howard made a last minute plea on Nguyen's behalf. He wrote a letter, I think? Apparently he had a meeting with the Singaporean Prime Minister that morning. Later Howard was angry because the Prime Minister had never mentioned that the execution was taking place.

There was a poll done in 2005. 47% of Australians thought Nguyen should be executed. 46% did not believe that. It's pretty split down the middle.

Lord Wiki says Australia doesn't have a death penalty. I didn't realize that; but I can't say I ever thought about it. Of course they once had a death penalty. We know what happened to Ned Kelly. But all that was stopped in 1973. The last actual execution happened in 1967.

Appeals were made for Nguyen three times in November. That makes me feel a little better. I think the saddest thing would be to be in a foreign country and just forgotten about and ignored. It makes me feel better to imagine that Nguyen knew that people were trying to save him.

No, wait. Lord Wiki was just talking about the government making three attempts. Other groups made more attempts.

This is all making me a little teary-eyed. I don't know. I guess I just hate the idea of someone having no one on their side. That's just so sad. But Nguyen did have people on his side. That's good. I don't think he was a bad person. He just made a really bad mistake.

All right. Let's see who tried to help and who was accused of not doing enough to help.

The Australian Coalition Against Death Penalty apparently received a lot of letters of support after Nguyen was sentenced. Their website is very minimalistic.

On November 25 2005, an appeal was made by Australian Catholic Bishops.

The day before the execution, a lawyer tried a last minute legal approach. He charged Nguyen with drug offenses in Melbourne. I guess this was kind of like saying. You can't punish the guy in Singapore because we have to punish him in Australia.

It didn't work. It was a fairly clever plan though.

Lord Wiki says that Amnesty International was criticized for not doing enough...for not working with other groups that were working to save Nguyen.

Lord Wiki talks about how Singapore defended their decision. They expressed regret but said this is their way of protecting their citizens from drugs. I agree with them in a way.

This is all way too complicated.

I don't know. Does Singapore have less drug problems than less strict countries? Do they have less crime? Are they better off because of these laws? If so, maybe it's all for the best.

I'm looking at statistics now. Out of sixty countries, Singapore is ranked #53 in terms of drug offenses. Germany, the UK, and Canada have the most drug offenses per capita. Now the question is what constitutes a drug offense? I'm guessing it's getting arrested for drugs rather than actually using drugs.

What causes more problems...the drugs themselves or the laws surrounding the drugs. Do drugs cause problems in society, or does the illegality of the drugs cause the problems?

I'm going to look at Singapore in terms of other crimes.

Well, never mind. I can't find statistics for Singapore.

I guess I could look elsewhere.

Let me see....

Well, Lord Wiki says it has a low crime rate....

If horrific strict laws keep the crime rate low, is it worth it then to execute a few individuals?

I don't know.

Maybe it is.

Lord Wiki talks about the Vigils that were held. The leader of Singapore's opposition party participated in one. He disagrees with the harsh punishments, believing they harm the couriers but do nothing to the big bad guys...the drug bosses. Yeah because the drug bosses will just keep hiring new people.

A Catholic Church in Melbourne held a vigil. At one point, the boys went to their primary school. I'm guessing it was St. Joseph's then. They rang their church bell twenty-five times at the time of the execution. The twenty-five chimes were to signify Nguyen's age at the time of death.

A liberal member of Parliament named Bruce Baird wanted to hold an official moment of silence. The Minister of Veteran Affairs disapproved and so did members of the RSL. Some believed that a drug criminal shouldn't be honored.

I don't think it has to be about honoring someone. It can just be about showing sorrow.

In Queensland, the Parliament debated for an hour and then finally voted to hold the moment of silence. People who voted against it walked out before it began.

Nguyen's funeral took place at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne. More than two thousand people attended the service. Some Victorian Members of Parliament were there. This drew criticism from some....the idea that they were glorifying crime.

The then premier of Victoria Steve Bracks did not attend. He didn't want to glorify Nguyen in death. But he didn't complain about other MPs attending. I have a feeling he just wanted to stay as politically neutral about the subject as possible.

I wish I could just end this here.

I hate this subject.

I don't like this post.

But I feel I should look elsewhere so I will.

This blog is all about the death penalty--specifically Asian ones. It's written by an Australian activist who was part of the campaign that tried to save Nguyen. The blog talks about Nguyen's family--their grief and guilt. It says that his mother said in a documentary, The people who have millions of money, they are the people who bring drugs . . . they never get killed.

His brother blames himself.

The documentary says this is what Nguyen wrote as his last journal entry.

I have reflected about what will take place at 6am and I can only smile, because I know I will be returning to heaven to watch over all those who have touched my life.
That's pretty sweet.

The blogger said Nguyen had no prior criminal record. Of course that doesn't equal not ever committing a crime. It could be that he was just never caught before. I'm doubting that though. I'm guessing he probably was innocent before the one crime.

It's really sad.

Am I saying that too much?

An Anonymous person responds to the post. They say, Yes how sad it is for those who have been given the death sentence. Sad indeed it is for those who have had their first taste of heroin, who have been enslaved by that poison that will slowly but surely drain the life from them. Sad it is for their loved ones, who will watch the drug-addict take his/her own life. How many mothers have lost sons in this way? Who tells their stories? Who sensationalizes their woes in the media? You see an occasional documentary on drugs but there are too many lives destroyed by drugs to highlight individually. Families pulled asunder by drugs are now just a nameless statistic. If you people are so grieved over one execution, it is good that you do not know the names of the countless many who have been put to death by heroin and other poisons. It is good you that you do not comprehend the enormity of the collective grief drugs have caused. It is good you continue to be blissfully blind.
I think they do make a good point.

The blogger responds. He says that people in the campaign to save Nguyen were often parents of drug abusers that lost their life. He says they knew that the death of Nguyen would NOT reduce the amount of people who use drugs. The death penalty does not deter the people behind the drug trade. The 'big fish' are almost never hanged, and if they cared about the lives of their couriers who are caught, they would not be involved in trafficking. Intercepting the drugs does reduce the amount that gets through to the streets, but interception does not need the death penalty to work.

Is that true though? If people were just arrested and not killed, would the number of traffickers be still reduced? Or do people need the threat of death to scare them away from trying?

This blogger also writes in support of Nguyen. A reader responds in opposition. He says,
To say Australia should apply pressure to a successful, prosperous society in order to impose Western values that are in no way universal, and to do so in protection of drug dealers who profit off of human torture and misery, is nothing but cultural imperialism.
Think about what drug dealers, especially of a horrific drug like heroin, do to a human being’s life. They make profits over an activity (heroin addition) that is no better than torture and slavery.
Singapore is s successful society that has found a way of dealing with this problem that is in accordance with it’s culture and traditions.
Australia has no more right to impose it’s values on Singapore than Singapore does to impose it’s values on Australians (imagine if the Singapore gov’t tried to apply pressure to force Australia to implement the death penalty.)
It’s the height of Western arrogance to condescend to an Asian society in this way.
I think he makes some good points there.

I just tried to find the story of Kevin Rudd's involvement; him giving Nguyen the bible. I'm not finding it. Maybe I dreamed it?

I'll keep looking. No, I can't find it.

But I AM right about Julian McMahon being the lawyer.

I'm going to stop reading. I think I understand how I feel about this all now.

I think Nguyen was a good person. I think it's tragic that he got involved with all of this. I think it's tragic that he died.

I'm glad people tried to help him.

I'm glad people mourned for him. I think he deserves a moment of silence. I think he deserves to be grieved. I understand he'll be missed.

BUT I don't think Singapore was wrong for doing what they did. This is their law. They have the right to inflict this law on outsiders who try oppose it. That being said....I probably never want to go to Singapore.

You know I've never really taken a stand for or against the death penalty. My feeling is this. If someone I loved was murdered, I'd probably strongly support the death penalty. I might even support torture. If someone in my family committed a capital offense, I would probably be strongly against the death penalty.

I just checked back at one of my old blog entries. It's about Schapelle Cody.

I was wondering if my opinion had changed about the whole thing. It stayed the same somewhat, but changed in other ways. Back then, I had the attitude that the crime didn't fit the punishment, and that was that.

I still believe that.

I definitely don't think Nguyen's punishment fit the crime....not by a long shot.

I think where my opinion has changed is that now I believe these countries have the right to have these laws.

Maybe my feelings are different in this story though because Corby insists she's innocent. It terrifies me to think of an innocent woman close to my age being executed for something she might not have done. Of course, she might HAVE done it. It's all very ambiguous.

Nguyen is guilty. Maybe that makes a difference for me.

I don't know. In a way it doesn't make a difference.

He made one big mistake.

It's really too sad.

And I'm just confused.

I feel lost.


  1. There was something really nice done by his girlfriend? and friends, tracing hands onto a pieces of paper, kind of representing that when he received visits, all that people could do was hold their hand flat against glass partitioning, with Van holding his hand the other side. Quite moving.

  2. Moving and very sad.

    I can't imagine how horrible his family and friends felt.

    I keep changing my mind about the whole thing. On one hand, I feel Singapore has the right to make these laws and enforce them. On the other hand, it makes me angry.

    I don't know.

  3. My immediate response was that all killing is bad. But then Singapore is a pretty good place to visit, and so I sit on the balancing beam.

  4. I've been way behind on my blog reading, and I can see how a few posts like this might burn you out.

    I don't support Singapore's right to kill people. In fact, I'm not big fan of Singapore. It is a nice-ish place to visit, but their extreme laws (everything from banning chewing gum to the death penalty) have taken a toll on their society. The government acknowledges a lack of creativity and original thought in their society, and is trying to artificially create it with mandatory music programs and so on.

    This is a country that has never recovered from the WWII atrocities committed there. I have been told by a large number of locals that they sacrifice their freedom for security. I very much doubt that killing that guy (no matter how stupid he may have been for getting himself into it) has saved a single life. And to add to that - he was exporting the drugs from Singapore, they were bound for Australia. There is absolutely no way a single Singaporian was saved by his death.

    Drugs have always been with us, they always will. The best defence is to build people with a strong sense of self, and a minimal need to escape the real world.

    Sorry, I've ranted on your blog again. But I cried many tears at the time, and I am crying them again. Mules are not evil, they are a bit sad.

  5. Ariane,

    I was on the fence about all this, but I think you have convinced me to cross over to your side.

    I think you make very good points. You're very right. The drugs were bound for how was Singapore being saved from Heroin?

    Interesting insights about Singapore. I'm pretty ignorant about the place so glad to be filled in.

    I love what you say about drugs. Instead of fighting them, yeah. We should be helping to make lives better so less people need to take drugs to "escape".

  6. Well researched (yes, I know this is quite an old post). One minor correction, the Nguyen brothers were born in a refugee camp in Thailand, not in Vietnam.

    -An Australian.

  7. Scott,

    Thanks for reading, and thanks for the correction!