By Maya Borom
Among the many countries throughout the world that still have the death penalty in place is one of Australia’s closest neighbours, Singapore. Mandatory sentencing of some offences existed in Singapore prior to 2012, which meant that certain offences, such as drug trafficking and murder, would automatically receive the death penalty.
Just Punishment, by Kim Beamish and Shannon Owen, is a documentary shot over two years telling the story of one of the final victims of mandatory sentencing in Singapore, Van Tuong Nguyen. Van Nguyen was found guilty of trafficking heroin and sentenced to death by the High Court; his subsequent appeal to the Court of Appeal was rejected and a date of execution was set to 2nd December 2005. It would mark 12 years since an Australian was executed by a State.
Just Punishment is a short but powerful film that highlights the injustices of the death penalty …
Interestingly, the film initially started off with a timeframe of six months but, as it became apparent that the appeals and clemency process would take longer, it grew to a total of two years. It includes candid and emotional interviews with Van’s mother and twin brother Khoa and former girlfriend and friends. It follows former defence counsel Julian McMahon and Lex Lasry as they battle the Singaporean courts in what is ultimately a struggle of life and death. The emotional toil is clear as those closest to Van try in vain to save his life knowing that there is little that they are able to do – legally or otherwise. Interspersed throughout the footage is the reading of Van’s prison diary, which provides a glimpse into the intimate thoughts of a person who knowingly accepts their fate.
Lex Lasry comments in the film that the death penalty amounts to ‘legalised murder’, and Singapore was condemned widely for it’s decision to go ahead with the execution. Both the Singaporean courts and political offices noted their inability to apply a sentence other than the death penalty due to legislation on mandatory sentencing – something that was only changed last year. At the time, overwhelming consensus in the Australian political and social landscape was that the sentence was disproportionate to the crime and that capital punishment should not be the sentence. Van’s sentencing instigated important public debate about the role of the death penalty in a contemporary judicial system.
Just Punishment is a short but powerful film that highlights the injustice of the death penalty – it brings to the forefront the real emotional and human cost in a state’s decision to take a life. It’s shown as something that doesn’t just affect the accused, it affects all those involved in a persons life – it affects everyone’s human rights.