Why Taiwan must abolish the death penalty

The death penalty has once again been in the spotlight in Taiwan over the past few days. The issue was brought to the fore after a man confessed* to a crime for which another man was executed in 1997. The wrongful conviction and execution of Chiang Kuo-ching (江國慶) was uncovered by a Control Yuan investigation in May last year. At that time the Control Yuan censured the Ministry of Defense over the case and said there were seven major flaws in the trial.

Since new developments in the case that resulted in the wrongful execution resurfaced there have been apologies issued by the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and President Ma Ying-jeou. About 30 officials involved in the arrest, trial and execution of Chiang are now facing administrative and criminal investigation. Those being questioned include two former defense ministers. However, a statute of limitations may prevent those involved from being punished.

While it is good to see action being taken to investigate those responsible for this gross miscarriage of justice, there is a need to do more. The problem is not limited to one case or just to the military justice system. The ongoing case of the Hsichih Trio highlights that the problem of confessions extracted under torture being used to convict people also exists in the civilian justice system. These cases underline the fact that there is a need for comprehensive judicial reform.

There is a need to reopen investigations on all cases which were based on confessions extracted under torture. When people convicted of crimes are found to be innocent then their names should be cleared and appropriate compensation paid. Officials responsible for wrongful prosecutions should take responsibility for their actions. As many of these cases occurred in the 1980s and 1990s then criminal prosecutions may not be possible. An independent Truth Commission could be formed to hold hearings on these cases. The findings of the commission could be used to inform the judicial reform process.

There is one simple way to prevent further wrongful executions. That is to declare an immediate moratorium on the capital punishment in Taiwan and take the necessary steps to make abolition effective in law. Yet at present in Taiwan there is no political will or leadership to abolish the death penalty or even declare a temporary moratorium. Taiwan had an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty from December 2005 until the government executed four men in April last year. In December last year the Minister for Justice said it was likely that Taiwan will carry out more executions of death row prisoners this year.

Unfortunately the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has remained fairly mute on the issue of the death penalty since the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) returned to power in 2008. However, I am sure that if President Ma took the brave step of announcing his intention to abolish the death penalty it would be supported by the DPP. Ma’s biggest problem would be dealing with dissent within his own party.

A recent comment by Frank Hsieh in an interview in the Taipei Times mentions the death penalty. He said, “We also object to the death penalty in the Criminal Code, but this doesn’t mean that we don’t accept this law.” It is not clear who he is referring to as we. However, if this reflects a consensus among senior members of the DPP or the DPP’s Central Committee then it is time for them to stand up and speak out on the issue. Taiwan cannot allow anymore wrongful executions. It must abolish the death penalty now!

*The fact that a man surnamed Hsu confessed to the crime doesn’t necessarily mean he committed it. A thorough investigation needs to be conducted and Hsu should only be convicted if there is solid evidence. The innocence of Chiang Kuo-ching was already known and not proved by the confession of Hsu.


One Reply to “Why Taiwan must abolish the death penalty”

  1. I’ve discussed the death penalty with a few locals in the light of the Chiang Kuo-ching case, and sadly I don’t see any shift in opinion. When I ask them if the execution of an innocent man makes them nervous, the answer is invariably “no.” In Taiwan, I feel, there’s a widespread “it won’t happen to me” attitude which leads to people convincing themselves they’ve nothing to worry about if the judiciary occasionally kills the wrong person. Just like they needn’t wear a helmet when they ride a motorcycle, because they think they’re careful.

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