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December 2, 2005 - Northern Advocate (NZ)

Killing The Couriers Won't Win The War On Drugs

By Laura Franklin, Editor

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

This week, we have witnessed the brutal and enormously tragic discussion over whether a mother can hug her son one last time before his life is taken by the hangman.

There have been grotesque comments by Singapore's chief executioner: If the practitioner is inexperienced, the dying prisoners "will struggle like chickens, like fish out of the water", he says.

How can images such as these do anything but underline the atrocity, the cold, considered cruelty of the death penalty?

And while the Australian government yesterday gave up diplomacy and called Singapore's plan to hang a 25-year-old drug smuggler "barbaric", the US was about to perform its 1000th execution since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Would Australia similarly condemn its large and powerful ally? Perhaps it draws a distinction between taking somebody's life with a needle and killing them with a rope. Does the more humane method make the ultimate penalty any more defensible?

America's state-sanctioned killings are reserved for those who commit murder with aggravating circumstances. But at the other end of the scale, many Asian countries apply the death penalty with far less provocation. Indonesia has had proposals to use capital punishment even for illegal logging.

Where do we draw the line? Should any crime cause us to abandon our basic morality and lead another living being to the chair or to the gallows?

What gives a government that right?

Even in the US, support for capital punishment is falling. A Gallup poll last month showed 64 per cent of Americans favoured the death penalty, the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 per cent in 1994.

All around the world, in fact, backing for the death penalty is weakening - but still, Amnesty International says at least 3797 people were executed globally in 2004.

Some 420 people have been hanged in Singapore since 1991, mostly for drug trafficking. That gives the country of 4.4 million people the highest execution rate in the world relative to population.

Sure, 25-year-old Tuong Van Nguyen, scheduled to die today, is a convicted heroin smuggler.

There is no argument with the fact that drugs lay waste to lives and those who profit from them should be punished.

Singapore's hard line is well known. In its position as a giant transit lounge for the world's air travellers, it says it cannot afford to become a hub for drug trafficking, and so has imposed a mandatory death penalty for drug smugglers.

It is therefore unmoved by sob stories such as Nguyen's claim that he was carrying the heroin in a bid to pay off his twin brother's gambling debts.

The difficulty is that while governments are ruthless with small-time "mules" such as Nguyen, the ringleaders, the producers and major distributors of the drug trade live on to profit another day. Singapore, for example, continues its close links with Burma, where drug lords run rampant.

With the drug trade still flourishing throughout Asia, there is little sign that the death penalty is enough of a deterrent to bring any kind of victory in the "War on Drugs".

It's known that the risks are high for those who choose to take part in the smuggling racket (those who preach that captured couriers knew what they were getting themselves into, are quite correct).

However, those who reap the real rewards of the trade cushion themselves from danger behind the foolish, greedy or reckless who consent to be their lackeys.

When Nguyen dies, another desperate mule will step forward to take his place. The anti-drug cause will have made little ground, but humanity will take another small blow.

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