Will Taiwan Ever Abolish the Death Penalty?

Will Taiwan Ever Abolish the Death Penalty?
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What you need to know

Premier Su Tseng-chang’s remark on the death penalty sparked activist outrage last week, and discussions on the abolition of capital punishment will be a crucial item on Taiwan’s 2020 policy agenda.

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“Confirmed death sentences should be carried out,” Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) said during a legislative inquiry on October 25, as the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) concluded its Congress in Taipei.

Su made his remark when a DPP legislator asked if carrying out death penalty would violate the existing international covenants on civil rights.

Taiwan's anti-death penalty community immediately criticized Premier Su’s response to the inquiry. In an open letter, Lin Hsin-yi (林欣怡), executive director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), and Wu Chih-kuang (吳志光), a law professor at Fu Jen Catholic University, questioned whether Su remembered his promise to explore alternatives to capital punishment from 15 years ago.

蘇貞昌:世界應替香港出聲 支持自由民主
Photo Credit: CNA
Premier Su Tseng-chang
The Case of Chiou Ho-shun

During the closing ceremony of the FIDH Congress, the organization issued a motion condemning Taiwan's continued death penalty and the case of Chiou Ho-shun (邱和順), and urged the Taiwanese government to comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.

Chiou Ho-shun, 59, is Taiwan's longest detained criminal defendant. He was accused of kidnapping and murdering nine-year-old Lu Cheng (陸正) and a female insurance agent Ko Hung Yu-lan (柯洪玉蘭) in 1987. Although Lu’s body was never found, Chiou was convicted in both cases based on confessions of 12 defendants. Arrested in 1988, Chiou said he was tortured into making a false confession, and his case has gone through 11 retrials by now.

It took almost 24 years before the final verdict was reached in August 2011. The High Court confirmed Chiou’s death penalty, despite recognizing that torture was used against Chiou during interrogation. He can now be executed at any time.

The FIDH expressed a deep concern that Chiou’s rights have been violated as a death row prisoner for the past 30 years. “His access to a fair trial was denied due to the loss of physical exhibits during the trial, without any opportunity of cross-examination of the witness,” the FIDH wrote.

國際人權聯盟第40屆年會開幕 徐自強致詞
Photo Credit: CNA
Former death row prisoner Hsu Tsu-chiang speaks at the opening ceremony of the 40th FIDH Congress, a global human rights conference, in Taipei, Taiwan on October 21, 2019.

Chiou's case is so controversial that organizations like Amnesty International have repeatedly spoken out against the Taiwanese government’s human rights abuse. When FIDH held its 40th congress in Taipei, former death row inmate Hsu Tzu-chiang (徐自強) made an open plea for Chiou, aiming to draw attention from the international communities. Several human rights organizations also held a petition calling for President Tsai Ing-wen to stop the execution of Chiou, pardon and release him, as well as restore his reputation.

“Although Taiwan's criminal law allows the death penalty, those people who are sentenced to death still have the right to make a petition for amnesty,” Chou Yu-shiou (周宇修), chairperson of Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), told The News Lens.

Taiwan’s Death Penalty Dilemma

There has long been a national debate on whether to abolish capital punishment in Taiwan. Arguments against the death penalty focus on the miscarriages of justice and emphasize that killing murderers would never stop other people from committing crimes. Supporters of the death penalty, on the other hand, often argue retributive justice is necessary.

Taiwan is praised as a “beacon of democracy” in Asia emerging from one of the world's longest periods of martial law. A landmark pride parade was also held this past weekend to celebrate the country’s same-sex marriage legalization. Taiwan has now developed a reputable human rights record compared with that of its neighbors, but the reluctance to abolish death penalty jeopardizes such hard-earned reputation.

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Credit: AP / TPG Images
Human rights activists unveil a banner reading "Miscarriage of Justice" in a sit-in outside the Parliament in Taipei Wednesday, June 26, 1996 next to a portrait of three men given the death penalty on convictions of murder, rape, and robbery. Human rights groups have called on President Lee Teng-hui to pardon the three, saying the convictions were based on confessions extracted under police torture.

But the media might have been too hasty in labeling Premier Su’s response as pro-death penalty.

During the October 25 inquiry, Su also explained there have been false verdicts in the past and the court should avoid subjecting anyone to injustice at all cost.

“Life is essential for human rights. The government should treat it with the most rigorous attitude. After a death sentence is confirmed, if there is still any relief procedure, the Ministry of Justice should take it seriously. This is understandable as life cannot be given back once it is taken,” Su said.

The premier and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have always committed to abolish the death penalty gradually. Within Premier Su’s term, no prisoner has been executed. But with the 2020 elections coming up in two months, Su might have catered his language for the voting population as some opinion polls have shown an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese supporting the death penalty.

“The ruling party probably wants more people to support it because, in Taiwan, most citizens think that the death penalty shall exist. However, as a responsible government, politicians should communicate with ordinary people,” Chou said.

DPP’s main opposition party Kuomintang (KMT) almost never fails to magnify the general population’s supportive stance on the death penalty. For example, when the notorious “Little Lightbulb” child murder case happened in 2016, a few KMT legislators immediately seized the chance to call for a halt to death penalty abolition. Earlier this year, KMT’s legislative caucus also proposed death penalty for child abusers as “a way to pursue justice.”

小燈泡
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
A woman prays in front of a makeshift memorial offered with flowers and stuffed animals for a girl who was killed by a knife-wielding assailant outside a subway station in Taipei, Taiwan in March 2016.
How Will Taiwan Deal With the Death Penalty Controversy Moving Forward?

In a recent Taipei Times editorial, FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos argued that Taiwan will only be a more just country without the death penalty. “Generally, in countries that have abolished the death penalty, public opinion has never demanded a reintroduction of capital punishment, because citizens realize that its abolition changes nothing in their daily lives,” he wrote.

Abolishing the death penalty may be inevitable for Taiwan. The ICCPR, which commits state parties to eventually phase out capital punishment, was internalized as part of Taiwan's domestic law in 2009.

“Although ICCPR does not ask the country to immediately abolish the death penalty, it does ask the country to move toward gradual abolition,” Lin Hsin-yi told The News Lens. “Accordingly, no matter who the ruling party and the national leader is, the country should go in this direction.”

The international society is now watching Taiwan's next step in deciding whether it will abolish capital punishment. After the 2020 elections, hopefully, there will be more serious discussions on the controversy without too many political calculations.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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