msnbc.com news services
updated 12/1/2005 6:28:53 PM ET 2005-12-01T23:28:53

Australian heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van was executed early Friday, the Singaporean government said.

“The sentence was carried out this morning at Changi Prison,” the Home Affairs Ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

Australia had been lobbying for months to stop the execution of the 25-year-old, who received a mandatory death sentence after he was caught in 2002 at Singapore's Changi Airport on his way home to Melbourne carrying nearly 14 ounces of heroin.

Earlier Thursday, Australian Attorney General Philip Ruddock called it "a most unfortunate, barbaric act that is occurring."

Ruddock criticized the imposition of the death penalty, especially in Nguyen’s case, which he said had mitigating circumstances — Nguyen said he smuggled the drugs to try to pay off loan-shark debt for his brother in Australia.

Asked about the comment, Lee would only say that "the Australian press is colorful."

Lee emphasized that all factors, including Australian letters for clemency, had been "taken into account" but said that "the law will have to take its course."

He said had the drugs gotten into circulation they would have caused misery for thousands of people, and said his country had to uphold the rule of law "with impartiality for Singaporeans and foreigners alike."

Strong allies
Singapore is one of Australia’s strongest allies in Asia, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard rejected calls for trade and military boycotts over the execution.

Nguyen’s lawyer, Lex Lasry, told Australian television from Singapore that Nguyen, a Catholic whose family came from Vietnam, was “ready to die.”

“He has little concern for himself. He has a great insight into his situation and he is, in fact, ready to die,” he said.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer confirmed Nguyen’s mother Kim Nguyen would be allowed to hold hands with her son before his execution.

But Singapore had knocked back a request that Nguyen and his mother be allowed to hug one last time.

“It’ll perhaps be very meager compensation, of course it will be, but it will be nice that they can touch each other,” Downer told reporters in Canberra.

'Playing God'
While many Australians held candle-lit vigils for Nguyen on the eve of his execution, the country was divided.

A survey by Morgan Poll conducted on Wednesday night showed 47 percent of Australians believe Nguyen should be executed, 46 percent said the death penalty should not be carried out, and seven percent were undecided.

Singapore has not published polls on the death penalty, but many people say they are in favor of it.

“We must have the death penalty in Singapore. If we do not take strict measures, many more drug smugglers will come to Singapore and destroy the country,” said P. Subramaniam, a 56-year-old shop owner, as he sold chilies to a customer.

Tengku Sri Melati felt otherwise.

“Having the death penalty is like playing God. We have no right to take lives away from another human being. Punish the criminal, but don’t kill him,” said the 23-year-old Muslim woman, who is a researcher at a business institution.

Some 420 people have been hanged in Singapore since 1991, mostly for drug trafficking, an Amnesty International 2004 report said. That gives the country of 4.4 million people the highest execution rate in the world relative to population.

Nguyen’s hanging was set for the same day the United States is due to execute its 1,000th prisoner since 1977.

Australia abolished the death penalty decades ago. The last man hanged in Australia was convicted murderer Ronald Ryan, who was hanged in a Melbourne prison in 1967.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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