Last week, 73-year-old Vietnam-born Australian Nguyen Thi Huong was sentenced for trying to smuggle 2.8 kilograms of heroin to Sydney.
Despite the fact that more countries than ever are abolishing the death penalty, the number of people being executed each year globally continues to grow. For two Australians, Nguyen and Pham Trung Dung, this isn’t a statistic, it’s the reality of their lives, or rather death: both are likely to be executed in Vietnam by way of lethal injection.
Having seen two executions via firing squad, one can only hope that Vietnam’s newly developed lethal injection method provides a much more humane death than that experienced at the hand of the firing squad — and far less terrifying during the last fleeting moments of Pham and Nguyen’s lives.
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In July 2014, Pham was sentenced to death by a Ho Chi Minh City court for attempting to smuggle four kilograms of heroin to Australia.
Let’s be frank, both Pham and Nguyen would have known that their efforts to smuggle heroin to Australia involved committing crimes in both Australia and Vietnam. They had to have known that their actions in Vietnam could, and most likely would, attract the death penalty if they were caught.
Arguably, a combination of greed and arrogance can often undermine logic in decision-making — whether you’re young or old.
But the conscious nature of Pham and Nguyen’s decisions shouldn’t impact on Australia’s support for its citizens, nor its campaign against the death penalty.
While Australia stands against capital punishment, our recent potted history of political responses — before and after an execution — at best reveals inconsistency, and at worst xenophobia.
When it came to the 2008 execution of the three Bali Bombers — Imam Samudra, 38, Amrozi, 47, and Mukhlas, 48 — Australia sat silently. According to Kevin Rudd at the time, “in the case of foreign terrorists we are not in the business of intervening on any of their behalfs”.
After the executions the Rudd government announced a campaign against the death penalty, but Australia’s tacit support for the Bali Bombers’ executions displayed our political hypocrisy for all to see.
When it came to the Bali Nine ringleaders, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the story was a little different. Various diplomatic and personal efforts were made to prevent the April 2015 execution — to no avail.
In the aftermath of these executions few appeared willing to consider that our selective protests to the death penalty could be interpreted as xenophobic attacks on Indonesian sovereignty. Arguably, we left Indonesian leaders with no means to prevent the executions and save face.
We shouldn’t be too quick to criticise any Indonesian for adopting this perspective. The sentencing of Vietnamese-born Australians Pham and Nguyen to death in Vietnam hasn’t attracted much media coverage or public interest. And unfortunately that supports accusations that our objections to the death penalty are selective.
Many of Australia’s Asian neighbors apply the death penalty broadly — for drugs, terrorism, murder, rape, child exploitation, foreign bribery and corruption — so this problem is not going to go away.
Australia needs a consistent and pragmatic national strategy that outlines its policy approaches to consistently addressing the death penalty challenge.
Firstly, this document needs to make a clear statement on Australia’s long-term commitment to the abolition of the death penalty, while also recognising the sovereignty of nation states.
The strategy also needs to provide a clear policy stance on diplomatic responses to cases where Australian’s have been sentenced to death. Our diplomats need a clear engagement framework on the death penalty to ensure consistency of effort.
Finally, the strategy needs to outline how Australia’s law enforcement agencies will continue to collaborate with international partners who apply the death penalty. Australia’s success in combating serious and organised crime in Asia can be directly attributed to international police engagement: information sharing, capacity development and joint investigations.
While we wait for such a strategy, Australia’s consular service staff in missions such as Ho Chi Minh City will continue to visit and assist our citizens facing the death penalty — as they should. In cells in countries such as Vietnam, Australian citizens are likely reflecting why their lives seem to have less value than those of the Bali Nine.
*Dr John Coyne is Head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Border Security Program. Prior to joining ASPI John was head of the Australian Federal Police’s Strategic Intelligence Services.