Tuesday, July 06, 2004

that it should come to this

The Guardian’s flashback feature today reminds me that I must be one of the few British people under 45 to have known a man who was later hanged.

Two Australian heroin traffickers, Brian Chambers and Kevin Barlow, were hanged shortly before dawn today after a flurry of last-minute appeals to the Malaysian authorities for mercy or a stay of execution failed, prison officials said. The officials spoke to reporters through a peep-hole in the massive steel gates of Pudu gaol, Kuala Lumpur. Later an unmarked prison truck left the prison for the mortuary, witnesses in a crowd of some 200 reporters and onlookers said.

The two were the first Westerners to hang under Malaysia 's tough anti-drugs laws, which prescribe death for anyone convicted of having over 15 grammes of heroin.

Asked how he felt, Barlow's lawyer, Mr Karpal Singh, said: 'Pathetic, that it should have come to this stage. '

Chambers' mother said in a written statement: 'No one has the right to take someone else's life. It's inhumane. There is no more to be said, but he will be free forever. '

Chambers and Barlow, who was born in Stoke and who also held British nationality, were arrested on the resort island of Penang in November, 1983, with 180 grammes of heroin and given mandatory death sentences last July. An appeal failed last December.

I still remember Kevin Barlow, vaguely. His mother worked with mine at the North Staffs Royal Infirmary. When I was about five I was stuck on top of a slide at the old playground on London Road in Trent Vale. He was a couple of years older, and helped me down the chute. I don’t remember if his eyebrows met in the middle.

The Barlow family left Stoke after a minor bit of squalor. I believe his mother was caught stealing from patients. By that time, young Kevin was already marked down as a wrong un, though weak rather than malicious. At the time of his death, mum and I theorized that he’d been used and dumped as a mule – given a small amount of heroin and steered towards the cops, while people carrying much larger amounts escaped attention.

A few years later I happened to work with a woman who was formerly a reporter on the Star newspaper in Malaysia. She said that the mule theory was current at the time in Malaysia, but the government had decided to make an example of whoever they got, and that person was Kevin Barlow. At the time, the News of the World was making hay with the case, featuring pleas for mercy from Mrs Barlow and assorted family members, with strong undertones that a blameless Brit was being unjustly killed by sinister foreigners. The Star was operating the other side of the street: How dare these foreigners bring heroin to our country and then try and push us around. The Star’s circulation went up quite nicely, my friend said. I doubt the whole affair hurt the NoW’s print run either. The Malaysian government got to posture in an electorally satisfying manner and no doubt several kilos of white powder passed unmolested through the country while the furore was in full swing. Kevin Barlow swang, I think, because his death was more useful and profitable to interested parties than his life.