A Matter of Life or Death


On 2 December 2005 Van Nguyen, a 25-year-old Australian, was hanged by the State of Singapore for trafficking 396 grams of heroin. He was the first Australian to be executed in many years and his story flooded news outlets across the country.

Almost three years earlier, in early February 2003, lawyer Julian McMahon walked into the Fitzroy office of Open Channel, a resource organisation for independent filmmakers in Melbourne, and asked to speak with a producer about saving a man's life.

He told Liz Burke, who was the executive producer of Open Channel at the time, about his client's predicament: Van Nguyen was a young heroin trafficker who was to be sentenced to death some time in the next month. McMahon thought a documentary could be a vital component in the push to save his life.

On hearing his story, Burke made calls to us, and we decided we would co-write and direct a documentary. Filmed over two years, Just Punishment tells the story behind the media face of Van Nguyen and the remarkable journey to try to keep him alive.

When we first started following Van's story we were skeptical. While there was no doubt in both our minds that as a basic issue of human rights this young man's life should be spared, we were immediately wary of the assumption that a documentary would be effective spin in a political campaign. We didn't want to airbrush the story's blemishes and we also knew that there was no guarantee that anything we made would go to air at a strategic time.

But with Van's sentencing about to be announced, and no time to apply for funding through the normal documentary routes, we jumped on the phone to see if we could convince someone, anyone, to support us to get to Singapore. At the 11th hour, with a mixture of philanthropic and in-kind support, we were able to book one ticket to Singapore for the first leg of production. It seemed we were now committed to seeing this through.

It was only a few weeks since we had met McMahon and now one of us, Kim Beamish, was sitting in the Singapore High Court with Van's mother, Kim Nguyen, waiting for his sentence to be handed down.


Kim Nguyen

Kim and Kim came to quick agreement: she was Kim One and he was Kim Two. Kim One sat beside Kim Two and peered over the side of the high balcony behind the glass cage her son had just been placed in. His shackles having been removed from his wrists and ankles, he was able to turn and look up into the stalls towards his mother. Kim One smiled, blew a kiss towards him and placed her hand on her heart. Only moments later an associate to the court walked into the room asking all of us to rise as the judge entered the room.


In Singapore a mandatory death sentence applies to anyone arrested carrying more than 50 grams of heroin. There is no jury and no chance for the accused to be able to offer an explanation or have any personal details about their circumstances or situation brought to the court's attention. The judge has no alternative sentence available to him other than the sentence of death. This goes some way to explaining why Singapore executes more people per capita than any other country in the world: 6.9 executions per 1 million people.

Van Nguyen was caught in transit at Singapore's Changi Airport on 22 December 2002 as he made his way home to Melbourne from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He had 396 grams of heroin in two packages one strapped to his body and the other in his hand luggage. On his arrest, Van immediately confessed and assisted the authorities with their investigations.

In the High Court of Singapore the judge asked Van to stand and said that he had been found guilty of trafficking 396 grams of heroin. What was said next was a mother's worst nightmare and something we would never wish to hear again: 'You are sentenced to be hung from the neck until you are dead.' The judge put down the paper he was reading, stood and walked out of the court room. In all, the whole process of bureaucratic murder had taken a couple of minutes.

Kim One is at the heart of Just Punishment, and her willingness to be involved in the film was integral to our ability to tell Van's story. We have been criticised for being exploitative, for observing Kim and her grief in the way the film does. However, it is through Kim that the question of the justice of Van's punishment is crystallised.

It was through Van's friends and family that the other questions at the centre of the film arose: What would you do? How would you cope if your brother, your son or your friend, at the prime of their youth, was sentenced to be executed? The more we filmed, the more we realised that this was the unseen effect of capital punishment. The wave of suffering felt by Van's friends and family illustrated more than anything the injustice of State-sanctioned killing.

It is strange making a film about someone who is alive, who you feel you know, but who you have never met. This was the case for the majority of our extensive production period. In Singapore, visiting rights for death row prisoners works on a quota system and visits are restricted to family and close personal friends.


Still from Just Punishment

Van endorsed the making of the film from the beginning. At that stage no one knew the outcome of the case and there was no way Van could imagine how he would eventually face his death. We followed Van's journey through reports from his visitors and his ceaseless writing. In the days before his execution, and upon his request, we were at last able to meet the person we had been talking about for two years.


In the preceding weeks Van had been elevated to almost saint-like status among some of his peers and, thanks to a remarkable campaign to try and save him, within some sections of the broader community. We were both nervous about meeting him and were intrigued by reports of the inner peace he claimed he felt in the days before being hanged.

When asked about his fear, Van replied with a cheeky calm, 'I can't say that I won't be shitting myself on the day but right now I am at peace.' Van admitted that he had no idea when he left Australia that he could be killed for what he was about to do. Of course this was stupid, but invincibility is something we all feel at 22 and both of us could remember the stupid things that we had done in the past.

Just Punishment is not an easy film to watch and it was not an easy film to make. In some small way we hope it challenges audiences to rethink their position in relation not only to Van's execution, but to the question of capital punishment in all cases.

Just Punishment will be broadcast on ABC TV on 7 December at 9:20pm

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.