A 25-year-old Australian drug trafficker will be hanged after the Singaporean Government rejected pleas for clemency.
The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, unsuccessfully made representations for the death penalty, imposed after Nguyen Tuong Van was found guilty of carrying nearly 400 grams of heroin, to be lifted on compassionate grounds.
Nguyen, a salesman and former boy scout who lived in Melbourne, was arrested while in transit at Singapore's Changi Airport. He said later that he was carrying the heroin to help pay debts of his drug-addicted twin brother.
"He will be hanged as a result of this decision," the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said yesterday. "There is no further appeal."
Hopes were raised that Nguyen would be spared after he co-operated with police. Australian Federal Police interviewed Nguyen in jail and he reportedly gave them detailed information about the Sydney drugs syndicate involved. Singapore's constitution allows for a Presidential pardon if an accused furnishes information that leads to the arrest of key figures.
Amnesty International believes more than 400 people have been executed in Singapore between 1991 and 2003. That’s approximately 30 a year. Singapore's Think Centre said that in the past five years 101 Singaporeans and 37 foreigners had been executed - 110 for drug-related offences and 28 for murder and arms-related offences.
Executioner Mr Darshan Singh will lead Nguyen Tuong Van to the gallows, and utter the last words that the Australian drug trafficker will hear: "I am going to send you to a better place than this. God bless you."
In a matter of weeks, he will place a rope around the 25-year-old's neck and say those words he has spoken to more than 850 condemned prisoners during his 46 years as Singapore's chief executioner.
Mr Singh has officially retired from the prison service but is called on to carry out executions, for which he receives a fee of $400. Until now, his indentity has been a closely guarded secret in Singapore.
Officials rarely comment on capital punishment, which is carried out without publicity behind the walls of Changi prison.
But The Australian revealed that the 73-year-old grandfather, who lives in a modest, government-owned apartment near the border with Malaysia, has been asked to execute Nguyen unless the Singapore Government gives an unprecedented last-minute reprieve.
Mr Singh told The Australian that under the Official Secrets Act he was forbidden from speaking about his work.
A colleague and close friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told The Australian that Mr Singh wanted to give up his hangman's responsibilities and live quietly in retirement but the authorities were having trouble finding anyone to replace him.
"He tried to train two would-be hangmen to replace him, a Malaysian and a Chinese, both in the prison service," the colleague said. "But when it came to pulling the lever for the real thing, they both froze and could not do it.
"The Chinese guy, a prison officer, became so distraught he walked out immediately and resigned from the prison service altogether."
Nguyen will meet Mr Singh a few days before he is executed and will be asked if he would like to donate his organs.
On the day before his execution, Mr Singh will lead him to a set of scales close to his death-row cell to weigh him.
Mr Singh will use the Official Table of Drops, published by the British Home Office in 1913, to calculate the correct length of rope for the hanging.
On the day of Nguyen's execution, Mr Singh will be picked up by a government vehicle and driven to the prison, arriving at 2 a.m. to prepare the gallows.
Shortly before 6 a.m., he will handcuff Nguyen's hands behind his back and lead him on his final short walk to the gallows, just a few metres from the cell.
Mr Singh joined the British colonial prison service in the mid-1950s after arriving from Malaysia. When the long-established British hangman Mr Seymour retired, Mr Singh, then 27, volunteered for the job. He was attracted by the bonus payment for executions.
Mr Singh is credited with the dubious record of being the only executioner in the world to single-handedly hang 18 men in one day - three at a time.
They had been convicted of murdering four prison officers during a riot on the penal island of Pulau Senang in 1963.
He also hanged seven condemned men within 90 minutes a few years later. They had been convicted in what became known as the "gold bars murders", in which a merchant and two employees were killed during a robbery.
One of the most controversial executions in his career was the 1991 hanging of a young Filipina maid, Flor Contemplacion, who was convicted of the murder of a co-worker, Delia Maga, and her four-year-old charge, on what many claimed was shaky evidence. Diplomatic relations between Singapore and the Philippines were soured for many years as a result.
He carries out the executions wearing simple casual clothes, often just a T-shirt, shorts, sports shoes and knee-length socks.
To mark his 500th hanging four years ago, four of his former colleagues turned up at his home to celebrate the event with a couple of bottles of Chivas Regal.
Mr Singh boasts that he has never botched an execution.
"Mr Seymour taught him just how long the drop should be according to weight and height and exactly where the knot should be placed at the back of the neck," his colleague said.
"Death has always come instantaneously and painlessly. In that split second, at precisely 6 a.m., it's all over."
When his colleague asked him why he had stayed so long in such a gruesome job, he replied: "It's all I know. It has become my bread and butter."
"He also used to cane convicted criminals after training in this cricket field," the colleague said.
"The pay then was 50 cents per stroke. He could wield a cane as well as he could wield a cricket bat."
Mr Singh lives happily with his second wife and is close to their three adult adopted children.
His first wife left him years earlier because she could not accept what he did. He had kept it a secret from her for years.
Mr Singh reportedly spends time getting to know the condemned prisoners, especially those who do not receive visitors or religious support.
"He is a very kindly man and although it's his job to end their lives he does feel for them," his friend said. "Mr Singh tries to comfort them if they are completely alone in the world at such a horrible time."
Despite the personal efforts of Australian Premier John Howard, and both Pope John Paul and his successor, Pope Benedict, interceding for Mr Nguyen Tuong Van, the latter's fate was sealed in the following letter sent by post to his mother, Madam Kim Nguyen, who fled Vietnam alone in a boat in 1980 and gave birth to her twin sons in a transit camp in Malaysia, before the three were accepted as refugees into Australia:
18 Nov 05
Ministry of Home Affairs
Changi Prison Complex.
1. This is to inform you that the death sentence passed on Nguyen
Tuong Van will be carried out on 2 Dec 2005.
2. We will arrange for additional visits from 29 Nov till 1 Dec 2005.
Approved visitors may register for their visits between 8.30am and 9.30am and between 12.30pm and 1.30pm at the Prison Link Centre, Changi (990 Upper Changi Road North Singapore 506968).
3. You are requested to make the necessary funeral arrangements for him, however if you are unable to do so the state will assist in cremating the body.
Please do not hesitate to contact our officers in charge if you have
Chiam Jia Fong
Institution A1, Cluster 1,
Singapore's Prison Service.