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TAIPEI, Sep 30 2011 (IPS) - A Taiwan military tribunal has confirmed that the late Air Force private Chiang Kuo-ching had been wrongfully executed in August 1997 for the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl. But campaigners against the death penalty doubt that this will restore the moratorium on capital punishment the Taiwan government broke in April last year.
Nine inmates have been executed by shooting since President Ma Ying-jeou’s right-wing Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) government ended the nearly five-year tacit moratorium on executions that began in 2005 under the previous centrist Democratic Progressive Party government (DPP).
Speaking to the legislative judicial committee Sep. 28, Justice Minister Tseng Yung-fu denied media reports that up to 10 of the 51 convicts whose death sentences have been confirmed will be executed shortly after this year’s National Day celebrations Oct. 10. He said “there is no timetable for the executions” and that “at present there is no concrete plan or list of convicts.”
But the justice minister also said that the ministry “will not give advance notice publicly but will only officially make a public announcement after the sentences have been executed.” This was despite objections by human rights groups that this policy blocks families from a last meeting.
After a three-month retrial, Ministry of National Defence northern district military court judge Liu Yu-wei announced on Sep. 13 that a panel of three military judges had found that Chiang Kuo-ching, who was 23 at the time of his execution was “not guilty” of the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl at an Air Force headquarters complex in Taipei city in September 1996.
The court stated that Chiang had been “locked in” as the prime suspect after failing to pass a lie detector test administered by Investigation Bureau agents, and acknowledged that Air Force counter-intelligence agents acting under the orders of then Air Force Commander and later defence minister Chen Chao-min had “used improper methods to obtain a confession from the defendant and used the confession to bolster weak forensic and physical evidence.”
Compensation, which could amount to nearly NT100 million dollars (3.2 million U.S. dollars), is being considered by the government. But Wang told reporters that “if Chen Chao-min is let off and judged innocent, then any reparations would be meaningless.”
Executive director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty Lin Hsin-yi told IPS that “this is the first case in the history of the Taiwan judicial system in which a person was sentenced to death and executed and later proven to have been innocent.
“We believe there are many other similar cases which should be overturned,” said Lin, who added that Chiang was “relatively fortunate” because “at least his reputation has been cleared and the persons responsible for this injustice have been identified.”
The innocent verdict for Chiang Kuo-ching followed on the heels of two other reversals in June and August of life sentences in a murder case and a multiple rape case, in which the defendants were confirmed to have been wrongfully convicted based on “confessions” or eyewitness testimony despite inadequate or incorrect evidence.
Taiwan Human Rights Association secretary-general Tsai Chi-hsun told IPS that several of the 51 inmates awaiting execution were convicted based mainly on confessions, which the defendants maintain were the result of torture in interrogations, without convincing physical evidence.
The TAEDP’s Lin says the Chiang Kuo-ching case should open the door to recognition that the judicial system has grave problems. She says the only route for convicts whose death sentences have been certified by the Supreme Court is that of special appeal.
“But in Taiwan this path is virtually closed shut,” said Lin. The current justice minister and supreme public prosecutor have not approved any applications for special appeals “as they seem to see the special appeals as only a delaying tactic.”
As a result, Taiwan “also does not have a complete process for the petition for pardons or commutation of capital punishment as required by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said the TAEDP director.
TAEDP and other human rights groups have called for a moratorium and for changes in the criminal code to require a unanimous decision by a panel of three judges for death sentences, and to require the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments for death penalty cases instead of only reviewing written briefs, among other measures.
As part of a drive to bring Taiwan’s legal code in line with the two international covenants by Dec. 10, Justice Ministry first counsellor Peng Kun-yeh told IPS that two bills now awaiting legislative passage would drop the current mandatory death sentence for kidnapping unless the victim was murdered, and for causing serious harm to other persons in the process of smuggling unless a death was caused.
“These changes are in line with the principle that death sentence should be reserved only for the most serious crimes,” said Peng, who added he was optimistic that both sets of revisions would be approved by the legislature.
But TAEDP’s Lin says Taiwan’s current practices still fall short of the requirements listed in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights for fair and complete defence against criminal charges, including a complete appeal process including the right to apply for special appeals or pardons or commutations of capital punishment.
“We should close our eyes and imagine how you would feel if you were like Chiang Kuo-ching and faced imminent execution for a crime you know you did not commit, or if you were his parents,” said opposition Democratic Progressive Party Legislator (Ms) Tien Chiu-chin.
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