Macabre legacy

  Australian heroin mule Nguyen Tuong Van will be hanged in Singapore using a method devised in 19th-century Britain, writes Nick Cater
October 26, 2005

THE hangman's craft calls for a good stout rope with enough tensile strength to withstand a force of about 570kg, which is sufficient to snap the neck of a condemned prisoner, putting them in a coma for the six minutes or so it takes the brain to shut down.

If the pressure on the side of the neck from the noose is less than 570kg when the body's fall is arrested, the prisoner will probably suffer prolonged death by strangulation.

Should the hangman miscalculate the length of the rope, allowing the body to fall too far, the force will be too great and, unless the rope snaps, death will be by decapitation.

Hanging grew in popularity from the 5th century onwards in Europe as a means of execution, partly because it provided a spectacle. The body of a murderer, witch or thief was strung high above the crowd, giving everyone a perfect view.

But judicial hanging is never tidy, even when professionally executed, and these days in pristine Singapore executions are carried out quietly, with a minimum of publicity, behind the walls of the rebuilt Changi Prison.

The Singapore Government stopped announcing executions five years ago and refuses to give out any information about life on death row. Although it is happy to publicise the death penalty in abstraction, believing its existence to be a deterrent to drug traffickers, the details of the execution, using a method devised in 19th-century Britain, are never officially discussed.

Nevertheless it is possible to piece together a detailed picture of how convicted Australian heroin trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van's life will end, using accounts obtained from relatives of prisoners by Amnesty International and from a rare interview I conducted in 1996 with the Malaysian hangman who executed Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, also for heroin trafficking.

Before their post-colonial separation in 1965, Singapore and Malaysia had a joint prisons department and, despite their technological advances in many other areas, the Singaporeans have been unable to improve on the long-drop execution technique introduced to British prisons in 1872. The mechanics and rituals of this macabre colonial legacy have barely altered since the mother country hanged its last prisoner 41 years ago.

A week or so before the twin trap doors open beneath her son's feet, Kim Nguyen can expect to receive a terse letter from the superintendent of Changi Prison. "You are advised to make the necessary funeral arrangements," the letter will say. "If you are unable to do so, cremation will be carried out by the state."

Nguyen Tuong Van was about to fly to Melbourne when he was caught in transit at Changi airport in December 2002 with almost 400g of heroin strapped to his body and in his hand luggage. He said he had been pressured by loan sharks to act as a drug mule to help pay off his twin brother Khoa's legal debts of $25,000. The sales executive from Glen Waverley, a middle-class suburb east of Melbourne, has no previous criminal record. He was sentenced to death in March last year. After Singapore's President Sellapan Ramanathan Nathan refused his clemency petition last Friday, Nguyen is set to become the first Australian to be executed in 12 years, since Sydney barman Michael McAuliffe was hanged in Malaysia in 1993 for heroin trafficking.

Nguyen, 25, will spend the final days of his short life in an isolation cell approximately 3mx3m, furnished with a toilet and a bed mat but no bedding.

In Nguyen's final few days, the regulation restricting family visiting time to 20 minutes a week will be relaxed, although physical contact will be strictly forbidden.

Nguyen is also allowed a television in his cell to receive the sanitised entertainment provided by Singapore's Channel Five English-language service.

Finally, on the night before his execution, he will be allowed to eat a takeaway meal of his choice, within the prison's budget.

Earlier that day Nguyen will meet his executioner, who will weigh him and examine his physique. After subtracting 6.3kg from the body weight, the notional weight of the head, the executioner will consult the Official Table of Drops, last revised in 1913, to calculate the length of the rope.

British Home Office regulations, adopted by Singapore, stipulate that the drop will be between 1.83m and 2.44m. For a condemned man weighing 66kg, for example, the rope should be 2.03m, with an additional 33cm added for the circumference of the neck.

Before Britain abolished the death penalty in 1964, the rope was specially made at a factory in Wellington, Somerset, woven from Italian silk hemp, chosen because it did not stretch. Elasticity in a rope reduces the deceleration force on the victim's neck, making death more painful. Today the favoured rope is made of Terylene, the least elastic of all the synthetic fibres used in rope making.

Friday is execution day at Changi, and before the sun rises, the hangman and his assistant will test the lever operating the twin trap doors and recheck the measurement of the rope.

Once the prisoner is collected from his cell shortly before 6am, speed is of the essence. The longer it takes, the greater the opportunity for panic and struggle.

A hood is placed over the prisoner's head and his hands are pinioned behind his back, usually with handcuffs. His legs are bound together with wire to prevent him kicking out and catching them against the sides of the trapdoor. The rope, attached to a concealed beam, is positioned around the neck and the trapdoor lever on the execution platform is pulled. The clunk of the wooden doors echoes around the chamber. Before the prison was modernised, the sound could be clearly heard by other prisoners on death row. If everything goes to plan, the strike force of the noose will dislocate the neck at the second and third cervical vertebrae, the classic hangman's fracture. The prisoner will enter complete neurogenic shock, unable to process pain, although electrical activity may continue in the brain for several minutes after the spinal cord is cut.

The body is left for 30 minutes. A doctor will perform an autopsy and issue a death certificate. By mid-morning the cadaver is ready for collection by relatives.

When prime minister Goh Chok Tong was asked in a BBC interview two years ago if he knew the precise number of people executed in 2003, he replied dismissively: "I've got more important issues to worry about."

Amnesty International claims more than 400 prisoners were hanged in Singapore from 1991 to 2003, the highest per capita rate of executions in the world by a considerable margin. More than half of those executed were drug traffickers.

In Singapore the issue is rarely debated, the country's low crime rate being seen as sufficient justification for capital punishment. Abolition, it is said, would send the wrong message to criminals who may interpret it as an indication that the Government is going soft on crime.

Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's hangman for 25 years, saw things somewhat differently in his 1974 autobiography. "All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done, I have not prevented a single murder," he confessed. "I do not now believe that any one of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge."

Nick Cater is the Australian's assistant editor (news) and a former News Limited Asia correspondent.