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Challenging capital punishment

The task is made harder when Australians are losing a sense of connection, of mateship, and of the value of all human life, says Jesuit priest. 

By Stephanie Thomas

Next year’s Commonwealth Games in Melbourne could provide an opportunity for the Australian Government to challenge the policy of capital punishment which persists in “too many Commonwealth countries” according to Jesuit priest and social justice advocate, Fr Peter Norden.

“The tragic killing of Van Nguyen by the hard hearted Singapore Government confirms that this practice [of capital punishment] needs to be challenged by the international community. Australia has a responsibility to play a leading role in this reform movement”, says Fr Norden.

In the absence of the Australian Government taking a stand Fr Norden believes it will be up to the Australian community to raise the issue in the public forum.

In December 2002, Australian Van Nguyen, then aged 22, was arrested in Singapore for carrying 396.2 grams of heroin. He was sentenced to death in March 2004, and last Friday December 2, the Singapore Government proceeded with Van Nguyen’s execution.

Fr Norden suggests that support of Singapore companies like Singapore Airlines and Optus will be affected by the actions of the Singapore Government. “The refusal of the Singapore Government to allow a contact visit between Van and his mother in the last days is indicative of their lack of humanity.”

According to Fr Norden, who served as chaplain to Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison between 1985 and 1992, “Singapore has seven times the rate of executions to the United States and one of the highest in the world, after Kuwait and China.”

“Their preoccupation with material things, economic growth and business has led to a diminishment of attention of humane values and commitment to international human rights.”

Despite Singapore’s extreme stance against drug traffickers, “the government continues to trade lavishly with Burma – the world's largest producer of heroin,” says Dr Chee Soon Juan, leader of Singapore’s Democratic Party, in an article published on the website Singapore Window. (link to http://www.singapore-window.org/1020csj.htm)

Fr Norden recognises the hypocrisy of this position. “It is time [for the Singapore Government] to do more than grandstand on the issue of drugs. If they wish to combat drug use and trafficking, they need to be consistent across the board, in relation to trade and international relations.”

During the last few weeks of Van Nguyen’s life the Australian community was seemingly compassionate in its response to his case as expressed through protests, prayer vigils and letter writing campaigns. Yet, according to a Roy Morgan poll conducted two days before the execution, Australians were divided on whether or not the death penalty should be carried out in the case of Van Nguyen, with 47% believing it should, 46% believing it should not, and 7% unable to say.

Amazed by this revelation, Fr Norden attributes the reaction to the changing nature of Australian society. “We are becoming more individual centred and less community centred.

“In a changing society, people look for simple solutions and often are not able to look to the complexity of human situations. Australians have traditionally believed in the value of human life, a fair go, and mateship, which means knowing that we are connected to one another. This is a dimension which is diminishing in Australian society today, but needs to be preserved.”

“Of course he [Van Nguyen] needed to be punished,” says Fr Norden, “but his crime did not necessitate the forfeiture of his life. The mandatory death sentence for trafficking in drugs lessens the capacity of the court to assess the reality of the situation, which can vary enormously from situation to situation.”

In the lead up to Van Nguyen’s execution the Catholic Church was involved in a variety of supportive ways. While not condoning Van Nguyen’s criminal actions, the Church’s pro-life stance was clear.

“The Church’s teaching is that all human life has inherent dignity and value, and is not dependent on considerations of innocence or guilt. [The] Christian understanding of punishment is that it is only moral when it leads to healing and reconciliation. Capital punishment never leads to healing and reconciliation,” explains Fr Norden.

But Fr Norden believes the Catholic Church could be doing more to abolish the death penalty worldwide. “I believe that Catholic organisations like Right to Life need to apply their values and principles across the board beyond the single issue of protesting against abortion.

“Unless this happens the credibility of their stance is greatly diminished.”

Van Nguyen’s funeral is expected to take place today at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. Amnesty International is the world's leading organisation campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty.To join Amnesty International’s anti-death penalty network go to http://www.amnesty.org.au/Act_now/campaigns/death_penalty


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