Singapore upholds death sentence for Australian

A Singapore court has upheld the death sentence as punishment for a 24-year-old Australian man of Vietnamese ethnicity found …

A Singapore court has upheld the death sentence as punishment for a 24-year-old Australian man of Vietnamese ethnicity found guilty of smuggling 400 grammes (14 ounces) of heroin while in transit at the island's main airport.

Nguyen Tuong Van, arrested at Changi airport in December 2002 while travelling from Cambodia to Melbourne, will be hanged unless his lawyers and rights group Amnesty International win a bid for clemency from Singapore President S.R. Nathan.

If the petition fails, Nguyen will be the first Australian citizen executed in Singapore. With his hands shackled and wearing a loose prison uniform of orange overalls, Van showed little emotion as a Court of Appeal judge read out the verdict.

Australia's High Commissioner and Van's mother were in the courtroom.

Australian envoy Mr Gary Quinlan said Australia's government was urging Nathan to commute Van's death sentence to a prison term.

"We will be supporting any clemency based on the very specific compassionate and humanitarian circumstances which surround this case," he told reporters after the verdict.

In 1994, Singapore caused a diplomatic furore when it turned down pleas for clemency from the Dutch government and proceeded to hang 59-year-old Dutchman Johannes Van Damme for trafficking about 4.5 kg (9.9 lb) of heroin.

Singapore's drug laws are among the world's harshest. Anyone aged 18 or over convicted of carrying more than 15 grammes (0.5 ounce) of heroin faces mandatory execution by hanging.

Van, a former salesman, told a narcotics officer soon after his arrest that he had carried the drugs on behalf of a Sydney-based drug syndicate in a desperate bid to pay off legal fees owed by his twin brother.

A policewoman discovered a package of heroin taped to Van's back during a pre-flight security check, and another in his hand luggage.

Amnesty International says Singapore which has hanged about 400 people since 1991, has possibly the highest execution rate in the world relative to its population.

Singapore has staunchly defended its use of the death penalty and maintained that foreigners are not to be exempted from its execution laws.

Nguyen's lawyers had appealed the original death sentence announced in March by questioning how police handled the drugs and the legality of the death penalty, which Singapore introduced in 1975 as mandatory for drug traffickers and murderers.