On Melbourne’s first balmy summer’s evening of the year, 300 people gathered last night in quiet vigil as, an ocean away in Singapore’s Changi jail, Nguyen Tuong Van held his mother’s hand for the last time.

We knew deep down it was futile; but there seemed something vaguely obscene about quenching our thirst in one of Federation Square’s bars when we could light a candle, walk over the river to Queen Victoria Gardens, and show our solidarity with the condemned man and his mother, and his brave friends who’ve conducted a dignified public campaign on his behalf.

Van Nguyen apparently took his impending death with remarkable serenity. But the TV scenes of his weeping mother being helped from the jail last night were harrowing.

Our vigil was repeated in cities throughout Australia. The thousands who gathered in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane believe Van Tuong deserved serious punishment for his crime – a hefty jail term – but death was too extreme; a profane assault on human life.

People like Philip Chan, a Melbourne man who does not know Nguyen, who took up his cause a few weeks ago, and was giving media interviews last night. After speeches by the politicians and churchmen, Chan gathered us together to form a circle of hope, stretching out over the Victoria Gardens on the edge of the city. Then, he asked us to bow deeply, begging that Singapore reconsider and grant clemency.

The crowd was a thorough mix of Australia’s society; there were mums with prams, suits from the city, the old and the very young, of every creed and colour. Bailey, a Sydney worker in Melbourne for a training course, was taking photos of the candles floating in the nearby pond. Alec, an animated Croation fellow, caught the train in to express his conviction that Van was “persona non grata” while in the departure lounge at Changi airport and shouldn’t have even been arrested there.

While opposition to this punishment has been emotional, the campaign to hang Van Nguyen has been characterised by exaggeration. When a Government monopolises the public domain as it does in Singapore, this leads to hubris: Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo’s claim that the heroin trafficked by Nguyen would yield 26,000 doses is simply preposterous.

This is simple maths; a gram of heroin, when cut for the streets, typically delivers up to 20 doses (“hits”). This means that 396.2 grams of heroin yields around 8000 hits – not even close to 26,000. And then to suggest that a ratio of one hit equals one ruined life is more fantasy. Anyone familiar with the street trade can tell you that 8000 hits will most likely supply the habits of 100 regular users, 20 addicts, or some number in between.

This is no excuse for addiction or the supply of narcotics, but truth is the most powerful weapon, the moral force that underpins our argument. Sadly, George Yeo’s mischievous exaggeration is distorting debate. Today’s Age carries an OpEd by my former colleague, Jim Schembri – a warmhearted man – who swallows the Yeo line completely.

Public opinion is divided, and dissenters point out that Singapore has executed hundreds of criminals in recent years without a hint of protest from Australia. Still, I believe that a man’s life is worth pleading for, worth bowing down to a democratically dubious government for.

Or I might be horribly wrong. Maybe “national sovereignty” wins out over the objections of do-gooders like the churches and bleeding heart liberals. But I choose to remember John Donne’s metaphysical meditation about justice, islands and tolling bells. Or if you prefer something leaner, John Kinsella’s preservation haiku.

But for powerful prose, check out The Australian’s editorial today: “Against executions.”