PENANG, Malaysia — Two Australians convicted of drug trafficking lost ground Friday in their legal battle to escape the hangman's noose.
They would be the first white men executed under Malaysia's tough narcotics laws, which make death mandatory for trafficking. The case has made headlines across Southeast Asia and in Australia, whose government has twice asked for clemency.
The controversy centers on the death penalty, but the publicity and the widespread efforts to win clemency for the two Australians have touched on another potentially volatile issue, the specter of a racial double standard in the application of the law.
"Like many people of European descent, they (the defendants) have assumed that a white skin was protection against local laws," the Sunday Star of Kuala Lumpur said in an editorial. "That is also the unspoken assumption among many in the foreign media who are now in this country. The two men should be hanged."
Death Orders Signed
In High Court here Friday, the clemency campaign for Brian Chambers, 29, a building contractor from Sydney, and Kevin Barlow, 28, a welder from Perth, received a sharp setback. Abu Talib Othman, the nation's attorney general, announced in court that their execution order had been signed. They could be hanged at any time.
The court had convened to hear arguments on a petition by defense lawyers to force a review of a decision by the Penang state pardons board rejecting clemency. The defense wants the decision nullified because neither the condemned men nor their counsel were permitted to appear before the board.
The lawyers said they had been assured by a state official that no execution order would be signed until the matter is settled. The judge set another hearing for July 14, but, as Barlow's lawyer, Jarpal Singh said in court, "All this might be futile." He might be arguing for his client's rights after he is executed, he noted.
Malaysia's anti-drug laws are controversial even among Malaysians. Defending them, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed said recently that the government is "not apologetic" about their severity.
"Malaysia has to be firm in its fight against the drug scourge," he said of the Barlow-Chambers case. "Anyone who breaks our laws will have to pay accordingly, irrespective of color, creed, their philosophy or nationality."
Chambers and Barlow, who walks on crutches because of a nerve disorder, are on Death Row in Pudu Prison in Kuala Lumpur, the national capital.
Since the death penalty for drug trafficking was approved in 1975, and made mandatory under a 1983 amendment, 36 men and women have been hanged for the offense in Malaysia. They included a handful of foreigners, all Asians. More than 70 others have been sentenced to death and are appealing their verdicts. Some are foreigners, including Westerners. None is an American.
However, no trial has caused as much uproar as the Barlow-Chambers case, according to Singh, Barlow's lawyer, a death-penalty opponent who has handled a number of the cases.
6.3 Ounces of Heroin
Barlow and Chambers were arrested in November, 1983, at the Penang airport. Police found 179 grams (6.3 ounces) of heroin in a suitcase carried by Barlow. Under the law, anyone possessing 15 grams or more of heroin is presumed to be trafficking.
The two men, defended by separate counsel, accused each other of placing the drug in the bag. The prosecution argued that they were both involved and the court agreed, convicting them last August. Judge Mohammed Dzaiddin said at the time: "I have no alternative but to impose the only sentence known to law: death to the accused."
The Supreme Court upheld the conviction in December, and six months later the Penang pardons board rejected a bid for clemency and commutation of the death sentences to life imprisonment, which under Malaysian practice could have meant freedom for the two men after about 14 years of good behavior.
The mothers of both men arrived in Kuala Lumpur just before the pardons board's decision last month. With them came more than 20 Australian newsmen, some with exclusive contracts for the families' stories. The coverage has been intense and emotional.
Appeal by Mothers
"I find it extremely hard to accept the taking of the life of someone I have raised from a baby," Barlow's mother told an Australian television reporter. Chambers' mother, after visiting her son on Death Row at Pudu prison, said he told her: " 'Don't worry. I'm not afraid. I'm closer to God.' "
The women have sent a personal written appeal to Malaysia's paramount ruler, Sultan Mahmood Iskandar, asking him to grant clemency, which constitutional analysts here say is beyond his power. Australian reporters said the letter was composed by one of their group.
While the news reports from Kuala Lumpur have stressed the personal angle, press comment in Australia, where the last execution--for murder--took place nearly 20 years ago, has concentrated on the principle of the death penalty.