Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

TAIWAN: Draft Laws Bring Removal of Death Penalty Closer

Dennis Engbarth

TAIPEI, Jul 22 2002 (IPS) - The abolition of the death penalty in Taiwan is not yet around the corner, but draft legislation that seeks to plug some of the law’s weaknesses marks no small step in the government’s efforts to get it out of the statute books eventually.

The proposed changes, contained in draft legislation approved by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led Cabinet on Jul. 11, would ban capital punishment for minors under 18 years of age and drop all mandatory death sentences.

They are part of the largest package of revisions to the island’s criminal code in 60 years, as well as one in a series of recent steps to prepare for the abolishment of capital punishment.

The elimination of the death penalty was a major campaign promise of DPP President Chen Shui-bian, a former human rights lawyer, legislator and former Taipei mayor whose inauguration two years ago ended nearly 55 years of rule by the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party of China).

The issue of abolition of the death penalty received attention in the 1990s due to a campaign by human rights and judicial reform groups for a retrial for the “Hsichih Trio,” three youths who alleged police torture in extracting confessions to a 1992 murder charge, for which they received death sentences. Their case is now being retried.

The number of executions has also dropped since the DPP-led government took office – from 24 in 1999, it fell to 17 persons and slid further to 10 in 2001. Three people were executed during the first five months of 2002.

On Dec. 10, 2000, President Chen commuted the death sentence and pardoned convict Su Ping-kun, who said that a confession to his alleged murder of an underground money lender had been extracted through torture by police.

In May last year, Justice Minister Chen Ding-nan declared that the DPP-led administration aimed to abolish the death penalty in three years or by the end of President Chen’s current term.

Since then, the government has eliminated mandatory death sentences for numerous felonies in the military or civil justice systems.

For example, Taiwan’s legislature approved in October revisions proposed by the Cabinet to the island’s military code of justice, thus reducing the number of offences liable for mandatory death sentences from 44 to two.

In January, the legislature also officially terminated the controversial ‘Anti-Hoodlum’ law, which authorised mandatory death sentences for a wide range of offences including kidnapping, gang robbery and other violent crimes.

The latest draft revisions to the criminal code would strike Article 63 of the code, which permits death or life sentences to be imposed on persons under 18 in grave crimes such as the murder of kidnapped persons or parents.

This clause contradicts the ban on the use of capital punishment on minors in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The draft revisions would also drop all mandatory death sentences and allow judges to choose between death or life imprisonment for the most serious crimes.

“The elimination of capital punishment for minors is an important step toward abolishing the death sentence,” said Kenneth H C Chiu, an attorney for Kew and Lord and a director of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR).

But Chiu told IPS that he was not optimistic that the government would be able to abolish the death penalty by May 2004, due to entrenched “psychological barriers” among Taiwan citizens.

Opinion polls by official and private agencies after the justice minister’s announcement in May last year indicated that more than 70 percent of the adult population in Taiwan, which has more than 22 million people, did not approve of an abolishment of the death penalty.

Efforts to persuade Taiwanese to accept an end to capital punishment may also be complicated by the 38 percent jump in violent crimes last year to 14,327 or 64.1 per 100,000, compared to 46.5 cases per 100,000 in 2000.

Even though the number of murders and kidnappings declined slightly, robberies, gang robberies and rapes rose 23 percent, 66 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in 2001.

Ordinary thefts soared 52 percent, probably reflecting last year’s sharp rise in the unemployment rate to an unprecedented 5.2 percent by December 2001.

In announcing the Cabinet proposals, minister without portfolio Hsu Chih-hsiung reaffirmed that abolition of the death penalty remains the goal of the DPP-led government, but acknowledged that “complementary measures must be implemented before most citizens could accept an end to capital punishment”.

Justice ministry officials say the revised criminal code would “use both tolerance and severity” to deal with the island’s rising crime rate.

The revisions would lower sentences for minor offences and expand the conditions for substitution of fines for prison time and for the use of suspended sentences. But they would boost the maximum penalty for a single serious crime from 15 years or 20 years for a repeat offender to 30 years and 40 years, respectively.

The Cabinet also wants to introduce the “three strikes” principle to repeat offenders of serious crimes. If approved, penalties for crimes carrying punishments of a minimum of five years in prison (such as murder, armed robbery, and kidnapping) would be hiked by 50 percent for a second offence and doubled for a third offence.

The package would also sharply hike the threshold of time served in life sentences to a minimum of 30 years for a first offender and 40 years for repeat offenders before possible release on parole.

Some politicians, like DPP legislator Chen Tang-shan, pointed out that “many people feel the term of sentences for violent or serious crimes are too light and that it is too easy for convicts to secure release on parole”.

“When I returned from the United States 10 years ago, I supported the abolishment of the death penalty, but after eight years of being responsible for public safety as mayor of Tainan county, I have changed my mind,” he explained.

“Even though legal or justice professionals are gradually coming to a consensus that capital punishment is not the best means to deter serious crime, most ordinary citizens are unable to accept an immediate abolishment of the death penalty,” said legislator Pang Chien-kuo of the conservative People First Party (PFP).

“Most people in Taiwan still believe that the death sentence deters violent crime, even if they agree that there should be stricter conditions on the application of capital punishment,” said Pang, who personally supports the removal of capital punishment.

But Chiu says that tightening of the laws may help reassure citizens. “By increasing maximum sentences and making it harder to gain early release, the draft revisions may reduce these kind of obstacles (to lifting the death penalty),” he said.

But Chiu added: “If the government really wants to abolish the death penalty, it must intensify educational efforts so that people can understand why so many countries have dropped it.”

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