Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

TAIWAN: Wrongful Execution Reopens Death Penalty Debate

Dennis Engbarth

TAIPEI, Feb 5 2011 (IPS) - Revelations that an Air Force private had apparently been wrongfully executed 15 years ago for the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl have reopened the debate over Taiwan’s retention of the death penalty.

Taipei District and Taichung District prosecutors announced Jan. 28 that after a new investigation into the case, another former Air Force enlisted man had confessed to the crime.

The announcement prompted President Ma Ying-jeou to apologise to the mother of then 21-year-old Air Force private Chiang Kuo-ching, who was convicted for the crime and executed by gunshot in 1997. Ma also promised “to use the swiftest legal procedure” to clear Chiang’s name and make reparations.

Chiang’s father, Chiang Chih-an, had waged a decade-long campaign to clear his son who, human rights lawyers maintained, had been tortured into making a false confession.

The father, however, did not live long enough to hear the prosecutors’ finding. He died less than a month after the Control Yuan, Taiwan’s watchdog agency, ordered the Ministry of National Defence (MND) to reinvestigate the case in 2010.

Lin Hsin-yi, executive director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), told IPS the prosecutors’ finding “will definitely have an impact” on the debate on the death penalty.

That debate appeared to have been closed after Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) government executed four death row inmates, all of them convicted of kidnap-murders, on April 30, 2010.

The executions ended a 52-month tacit moratorium imposed by the previous government under the Democratic Progressive Party.

The orders for the executions had been signed by new Justice Minster Tseng Yung-fu, a former prosecutor appointed by KMT Premier Wu Den-yi in late March.

Tseng replaced former justice minister Wang Ching-feng, who had resigned in the wake of a political furore caused by her declaration she would refuse to sign execution orders.

“Many people still support the death penalty because they do not believe that judges or prosecutors can make wrongful judgments, but the Chiang case proves otherwise,” said TAEDP’s Lin.

In their report, the Control Yuan commissioners found that then Air Force Political Warfare Headquarters Commander Chen Chao-min had violated the Military Trial Law by permitting Air Force counterintelligence agents without status as judicial officers to conduct the murder investigation.

These agents extracted a confession from Chiang after 37 hours of constant interrogation and torture.

The Control Yuan commissioners also said that during Chiang’s military trial, Chen had failed to consider the fact that the defendant had recanted and declared that his confession had been extracted through torture.

Chen, who was appointed defence minister in Ma’s first Cabinet in May 2008, was also found to have violated Chiang’s human and judicial rights by rushing his conviction and execution.

The Control Yuan turned the report over to the Office of the Chief Public Prosecutor for investigation and demanded corrective action from the MND.

The Control Yuan also demanded a retrial or a special appeal trial by the Supreme Military Court, and demanded the return of the sizable rewards given to the officers who “broke” the case.

Following a review of forensic evidence, prosecutors announced that another Air Force enlisted man, Hsu Jung-chou, was now their prime suspect.

Hsu had served two prison terms on similar offences committed in 1996 and 2003, and had confessed to the murder during questioning by Taichung District prosecutors.

On Jan 29, the MND issued a statement that appeared to defend its failure to indict Hsu. The next day, however, the MND admitted “there had definitely been shortcomings” in the handling of the case and “solemnly” issued “the most sincere apology” to the Chiang family.

The MND later said it asked the Taipei District Prosecutors Office to provide the Ministry with new evidence on the case. The MND said it would apply for a retrial on Chiang’s behalf and anticipated that proceedings could be completed within six months.

The defence ministry also asked the prosecutors to investigate the officers suspected of “using torture to illegally extract” a confession from Chiang.

Judicial Reform Foundation Executive Director Lin Feng-cheng told IPS the retrial would serve as the legal foundation for the pursuit of reparations. It would also serve as basis to hold former Air Force and defence ministry officials criminally liable for the miscarriage of justice.

Nevertheless, a poll released by the National Chung Cheng University Crime Research Centre revealed what the JRF’s Lin called a “split personality” in Taiwan public opinion.

According to the poll, released one day before prosecutors announced their findings on the Chiang case, nearly 78 percent of respondents expressed doubt over the competence of both judges and prosecutors in handling criminal cases.

But more than half, or 59 percent, indicated they totally opposed the abolition of the death penalty, while nearly 30 percent said they would only approve “with complementary measures,” and only 2.2 percent said they advocated direct abolition.

The JRF’s Lin observed that the mainstream media has treated the Chiang Kuo-ching case as an individual ‘mistake’ involving only the military court system.

“After the justice system has taken remedial action, I believe the questions of institutional change, namely whether the military court system should continue to exist and whether the death penalty should be retained, will resurface,” the JRF’s Lin stated.

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