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TAIWAN: Activists Turn to Film as Weapon against Death Penalty

Dennis Engbarth

TAIPEI, Oct 10 2010 (IPS) - “We never want to see anyone else in Taiwan become a second Lu Cheng,” declared Lu Ching, referring to her younger brother whom she believes was wrongfully executed in September 2000 after being forced to confess to a kidnap-murder.

Lu issued the plea on Oct. 8, the first day of a three- day film festival called ‘Murder by Numbers’ which began with the screening of a documentary on this case. The festival was organised by the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) to mark World Day Against the Death Penalty on Oct. 10.

‘Formosa Homicide Chronicle II: The Case of Lu Cheng’, directed by Tsai Tsung-lung for Taiwan’s Public Television Service in 2001, chronicles the story of former police officer Lu Cheng, who was executed on Sep. 7, 2000 after being convicted of the kidnap-murder of a former high school classmate in Tainan City in 1998.

The conviction was based almost entirely on a confession obtained through a 36-hour interrogation by police.

Other films around the death penalty from Taiwan, Germany, India, Japan, Iran, France, Hong Kong and the United States were also screened at the festival.

The event took place amid several setbacks in rights campaigners’ efforts to secure the abolition of the death penalty in Taiwan, which has been in the criminal code since it took effect in 1935. Among these setbacks is the government’s breaking of what had been a 52-month moratorium on executions that the former Democratic Progressive Party government began in December 2005.

Since the Lu Cheng case, the quality of Taiwan’s police, prosecutors and judges and the implementation of criminal investigation procedures have “sadly not improved much”, says Lin Yung-sung, director of the Judicial Reform Foundation and former director of Taiwan’s Legal Aid Foundation.

“If this movie had been a Hollywood drama, the entire audience would have been applauding,” explained TAEDP Executive Director Ms Lin Hsin-yi, “but no one clapped their hands when it ended because everyone felt stunned and powerless.”

“Speeches, seminars and books are important, but movies like can present comprehensive stories that are direct and moving and easier understood and can plant a seed in a person’s mind and heart,” she added.

Taiwan’s moratorium on executions was ended by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) government of President Ma Ying-jeou on Apr. 30, with the execution of four death row inmates convicted of kidnapping and murder or multiple murders.

The execution orders were signed by Justice Minister Tseng Yung-fu, a former prosecutor who replaced a predecessor, Wang Ching-feng, who resigned in March in the wake of a political furor over her public refusal to sign them.

The abolition movement suffered another setback when Taiwan’s Constitutional Court declined on May 28 to accept three petitions, filed by TAEDP on behalf of the then 40 remaining death row prisoners, that challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty.

The Court rejected TAEDP arguments that it conflicts with the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which had become part of Taiwan law in March 2009.

Prospects for change in Taiwan’s use of the death penalty are also clouded by President Ma’s appointment of conservatives as president and vice president of the judicial branch, and thus chairman and vice chairman of the Constitutional Court, for six-year terms.

Since May, four more people have been added to death row. Activists are also awaiting a Nov. 12 judgment by the Taiwan High Court on the ‘Hsichih Trio’ case, involving three people who were sentenced to death for the March 1991 murder of a couple in the Taipei suburb of Hsichih based almost entirely on their confessions.

Over the past 19 years, the trio, who said their confessions were extracted by torture in interrogation in August 1992, has had 11 retrials and three extraordinary appeals, becoming the focus of a global human rights campaign.

Earlier in May, Taiwan’s Justice Ministry cited opinion polls showing that 74 percent of adults oppose abolition as grounds for its policy to work for “the ultimate goal of abolishing the death sentence by gradually reducing (its) use” and formulating “complementary measures” to prepare for abolition.

In the meantime, the ministry said it would abide by the principle of “administration based on law” and implement death sentences confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Chief prosecutor Chien Mei-hui, director of a ministry special task force on the death penalty, told IPS that the committee was studying how the 2005-10 moratorium affected crime rates, possible substitutes for the death penalty, means to enhance protection for victims and other measures to prepare for eventual abolition.

For instance, Chien said the task force has reached “internal consensus” that “victim-less crimes”, notably drug trafficking, should not be subject to capital punishment.

But the Lu Cheng documentary shows that “the problem is not simply whether Taiwan should have the death penalty but whether the Taiwan judicial system is qualified to pass death sentence judgments”, said Judicial Reform Foundation’s Lin. ‘Formosa Homicide’ related the unsuccessful campaign by Lu’s sisters, Lu Ping and Lu Ching, to secure the tapes of his 36-hour interrogation to probe inconsistencies in the handling of the case.

The Tainan city police’s refusal to release the tapes “has made this a case in which it is impossible to find the truth”, says the film’s director Tsai Tsung-lung, now a communications instructor at National Chung Cheng University in the same county. “During the making of this film, we encountered shocking problems at each link in the judicial system that make it possible for such tragic cases to occur,” said Tsai.

But while she and her sister had been treated as troublemakers during their sit-in protests for their brother, Lu Ping recalled how one police guard at the legislature told her that “you two sisters are very brave and we are grateful to you as our superiors have told us that we must be more rigorous and cannot have another such case.”

Said Lu Ping: “As long as one person believes my brother is innocent, we believe that Taiwan’s justice has a chance for progress and that our pain has not been in vain.”

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