A high-level international delegation is in Taipei this week lobbying the government to abolish the death penalty.

The group, which includes the U.K.’s former top public prosecutor, will hold meetings with President Tsai Ing-Wen (蔡英文) and Minister of Justice Chiu Tai-san (邱太三), as well as several of the country’s legal and academic institutions.

Ahead of the visit, the Guardian reported that the group’s “ultimate aim” was to persuade President Tsai to abandon capital punishment. Their visit is scheduled to cover judicial reform, forensic psychiatry, judicial human rights and other issues.

As the paper notes, polls show that Taiwanese overwhelmingly support the death penalty. Nevertheless, international experience — particularly in Europe — shows that if politicians act on the issue rather than wait for the electorate to vote on it, public support will follow.

Local abolition advocates, however, doubt whether Taiwanese politicians possess the confidence or conviction needed to act against mainstream opinion.

“In Taiwan, this is impossible, because the politicians will not go against public opinion ... they are so afraid of losing votes,” Lin Hsin-yi (林欣怡), executive director the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), said in a July interview with The News Lens International.

Six years ago Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) resigned as Minister of Justice after a public campaign against her refusal to sign execution orders during her tenure.

The hesitation on the part of politicians to even enter the debate is perhaps best reflected by the New Power Party (NPP), which was formed last year and boasts five legislators in Taiwan’s parliament. The party’s leaders are known for campaigning on social and civil issues including stopping the use of nuclear power, and advocating for indigenous and gay rights. One of its legislators, Freddy Lim (林昶佐), previously led the Taiwan branch of Amnesty International, one of the world’s more prominent anti-death penalty voices.

An NPP spokesperson told TNLI this week that while NPP legislators had their personal opinions on the issue, the party still needed more time “to form a comprehensive policy."

In 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — in its first term in office — announced its intention to phase out the death penalty. Execution numbers declined steadily, and from 2006 to 2009 the country effectively had a moratorium in place.

The Kuomintang (KMT) retook power in 2008 under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), and for two years campaigners remained hopeful Taiwan would continue on the path toward abolishing the death penalty. After all, the Ma government had signed several key international human rights covenants. However, following the campaign against Wang, executions resumed in 2010. Thirty-three prisoners have been executed since. The most recent execution, carried out this May, drew significant criticism for breaking from convention and lacking due process.

Despite its leadership in phasing out capital punishment more than a decade ago, the DPP has been somewhat opaque on the issue. When asked for its position this week, a spokesperson pointed to a May 30 comment from Minister of Justice Chu.

Chu, who had taken office 10 days earlier, said at the time that abolishing the death penalty would be “a long process.” While there is an international trend toward abolition, Chu said there was a “lack of communication” between opposing sides in the debate. He hoped further conversation could lead to an agreement.

Now in the opposition, the official KMT position has not changed, but different positions still exist within the party. KMT Chairperson Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) supports the death penalty, believing in an “eye for an eye” system, says Eric Huang (黃裕鈞 ), chief of the foreign media and international affairs sections at the party’s Central Committee.

Huang — who personally believes the country’s worst offenders should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole — notes the contradiction whereby the majority of Taiwanese support the death penalty but do not have faith in the country’s justice system.

Interestingly, TAEDP’s Lin says surveys showing public support for capital punishment are skewed because they are typically held immediately after a serious crime.

The organization’s own research shows that the more information Taiwanese have about the issue, the more likely they are to be against it. What is needed, and what TAEDP is doing, Lin said, is to take the death penalty discussion across the country, and put alternatives on the table — such as life sentence without parole, or life sentence with the chance of parole after 25 years.

“We know that if people have an alternative, they will choose that.”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole