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Monday, November 28, 2005

When in Rome

Australia is in an uproar over the case of Nguyen Tuong Van, an Australian citizen who was arrested by Singapore authorities in 2002 for drug smuggling - 396 grams of heroin, to be exact. After being duly convicted, he was sentenced to death. Nguyen was on his way to Australia with the heroin, where it could have been split into as many as 26,000 hits, with street value of $500,000 to millions.

Australia eliminated the death penalty in 1973.

Nobody is claiming that Nguyen is innocent. They are merely arguing that the death penalty is barbaric.

Whenever this comes up, it is always discussed in terms of "we can't believe anyone in the 21st century still does this." But the question is really not is the death penalty ever justified (because it is). The questions that should be getting asked, but are not, are:

Is Singapore's criminal justice system competent and fair?
What is the likelihood that Nguyen is actually innocent?
Are there mitigating factors that should be considered?

I have seen no complaints about the quality of trial in Singapore. Nguyen seems resigned to his fate and isn't claiming that he is innocent. As far as mitigating factors, Nguyen did the trafficking in order to pay for his brother's legal bills - created by his two drug trafficking convictions.

The old adage is "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." If you're going to smuggle drugs, breaking the laws of virtually every country, you take your chances. The US State Department warns travelers that when they are in a foreign country they are subject to the laws and legal systems of those countries.

Nguyen rolled the dice, and came up craps.

If there is little doubt about Nguyen's guilt, why should Singapore pay to keep this man alive in jail for the entire rest of his natural life? Which is the worse punishment, life in prison with no hope of parole or execution?

Opiate overdose kills hundreds of people annually in Australia. But there has been no outpouring of sympathy for those who would have died from the heroin Nguyen was supplying. And with the large amount involved, people would certainly have died from that very heroin. I guess it's alright for hundreds a year to die, but not this one? If we are comparing barbarisms, heroin overdose is pretty high up the list.

I am in favor of the abolition of all drug laws, on the basis that what someone puts into their own body is their business. If they commit crimes to gain money for drugs, then punish them for those crimes, not for possession or use or sale of the drugs.

The tragedy here is that the act of drug use is still widely considered criminal, and thus the trafficking in drugs is a high-risk high-margin business, which can attract even otherwise good people to a life of crime.