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Seven years after Van Nguyen's execution, death penalty still revolts me


Alfrescian (Inf)

Seven years after Van Nguyen's execution, death penalty still revolts me

No human or state hand should play any part in deciding when and how someone should die. The repercussions of Ngyuen's case are still felt long after his execution

Brigid Delaney
The Guardian, Thursday 1 August 2013 00.19 BST


A gong is rung 25 times as mourners gather at Martin Place in Sydney for a silent vigil for the execution of Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore. Photograph: /Mick Tsikas/AAP

Was it really seven years ago that they hanged Van Nguyen in Singapore?

I remember the bells ringing out in his home parish of St Ignatius, Richmond, 25 times – one for each year of his life – and people wearing yellow ribbons gathered, some crying in the pews, and the news crews outside Changi prison late at night and into the dawn. It was reported that he accepted his death with dignity and grace. Arguments about the death penalty raged.

Maybe I remember these things so clearly because for me, Nguyen’s hanging represented some sort of turning. It was a disbelief that the state could do that – that the death penalty was still in the legal system’s tool kit.

I’d been a young lawyer in a deprived rural area and had seen the wheels turn. There were options – both in sentencing, and for the accused. The prospect of rehabilitation is explicit in our legal system, no-one can be entirely written off. The capacity for change runs deep in our nature.

As for my own beliefs, I’m the product of a certain brand of Catholicism typical in Australia. It’s lapsed and it’s lazy, its masses in primary school and a basic knowledge of the Bible. But there is, at the core, an assumption of certain principles: redemption, mercy, forgiveness. And a recoiling at a human or state hand playing any part in deciding when and how someone should die.

The story of Nguyen in prison (one represented, not without controversy in the TV series Better Man currently shown on SBS) is this: sorrow, atonement, a request for forgiveness and finally, at the end, grace. The story of his death is the one of the state playing God.

The death penalty is like taking something barbaric and raw, and folding it into the mechanics of the state – a grim procession of appeals and denials, of applications and refusals, of meeting between ministers, of official letters, committees and protocol. In a letter to his mother, the state fixed the time and place of his death: 6am on 2 December 2005. It seems primally unnatural to set a time for someone’s death.

Of course, there is the argument that trafficking drugs leads to the death of countless others who use your drugs, and that death is a just punishment. I like Auberon Waugh’s response:

"Judicial execution can never cancel or remove the atrocity it seeks to punish; it can only add a second atrocity to the original one … So long as one sees killing as wrong there is no need to waste time with the deterrent argument, since it would be nonsense to try to prevent a theoretical evil in the future by perpetrating an actual one in the present"

Each generation seems to have its death penalty cases whose aftershocks are felt long after the execution. When George Orwell witnessed a hanging in colonial Burma, he wrote:

"It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive."

Likewise, the hanging of Ronald Ryan in Victoria politicised many. For Labor party elder Barry Jones, campaigning against the death penalty led to his resignation from the state education department in 1967.

Steve Price wrote recently in the Herald Sun about the hanging of Barlow and Chambers, years ago now, but the memory still fresh for him:

"Anyone involved with their case could never forget it and in July 1986 the afternoon Melbourne Herald newspaper tried to ram home just how final death at the end of a rope for drug trafficking could be. I can still see the banner headline: IT'S DONE, above a photograph of the bodies of the two young men covered by a sheet. One corpse had an identity tag hanging from the dead man's big toe."

To get near the death penalty even as reporter is to feel tainted in its aftermath, often for years later.

One of Australia’s most fearless photographers, Kate Geraghty – who’s been the world’s worst war zones – wrote to me last week about Van Nguyen: “I photographed Nguyen when I spent two weeks with his lawyers and two friends in Singapore. It was one assignment that shook me to my core.”

It’s not just the media or the lawyers. There are those of us who watched the reports of Nguyen’s hanging on breakfast television. Who stopped what they were doing that morning, listened and felt the very strange experience of experiencing in real time the death of someone.

It was not a good feeling.

I now sit on the executive committee for Reprieve and was a co-founder of the Mercy Campaign which is campaigning for clemency for members of the Bali 9 on death row – Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. My involvement is as a result of feeling angry, sad and powerless the day Nguyenn was executed.

Many of the Mercy Campaign’s volunteers were moved by Nguyen’s story seven years ago, and didn’t want the same thing repeated in Bali. The execution jolted them. They didn’t know Nguyen, they had no stake in the matter – but the fact that people are still being executed was such a shock to some core sense of humanity that it politicised them.

They are among the more than a hundred young Australians who have worked for free on death row cases in the US southern death penalty states; they are Australians who are working (also for free) in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia with local lawyers on death penalty cases involving not Australians anyone on death row who needs assistance.

None of us want a life in full tide cut off without a fight.