On March 12, Taiwan’s Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng resigned after failing to win support to abolish the death penalty. She said abolishing capital punishment was not just her “personal, weird thinking” – it is a consensus in the international community. Appointed to replace her, Minister Tseng Yung-fu said his ministry would undertake a final review of the 44 current death penalty verdicts before carrying out the sentences.
Taking a stand
On March 10, Wang publicly expressed her attitude in an article entitled “Rationality and Tolerance: a moratorium on death penalty executions” on the web site of the Ministry of Justice. In her article, Wang said, as Taiwan keeps pace with the world with its economic and trade achievements, she hopes the island will also be a leader on this issue in Asia, showing tolerance rather than revenge and letting rationality win over fear. In the near future, “we can proudly announce no more capital punishment on this beautiful island.” Furthermore, the existence of the death penalty has not been shown to reduce criminal acts.
Wang told the media that she would not sign any execution orders for the current inmates on death row during her tenure. She received the backing of local supporters such as the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty, and international advocates like actress Susan Sarandon. The London-based Amnesty International has also backed Wang, and its interim Secretary General Claudio Cordone urged Taiwan to set an example for Asia by doing away with the death penalty and canceling pending sentences.
In justifying her decision, she said “the government can’t take the initiative in killing. As the justice minister, I really can’t do it.” Taiwan has to think about this issue in a more reasonable way. It is very easy to kill, but society needs to ponder the reason behind the criminals’ actions, she pointed out. Why not give them a chance to repent? It has been a deeply rooted idea for thousands of years that killers must die. It is not easy to change. It takes time, Wang stressed.
Counter to popular opinion
According to polls conducted by the United Daily News, only 12 percent of Taiwanese respondents support Wang while 74 percent are opposed to the abolition of the death penalty, and 42 percent felt Wang should step down.
Since the justice minister must authorize all executions, Wang’s speech resulted in public protests from families of murder victims, such as Taiwanese actress Pai Ping-ping, whose teenage daughter was tortured and killed by kidnappers in 1997.
Pai blamed Wang for giving mercy to the wrong people. She feels sympathy should be shown not to the 44 criminals who have been sentenced to death by the court, adding that they killed others first and the Ministry of Justice is authorized by the constitution to enforce capital punishment. Legislator Huang Chao-shun also criticized Wang for her stance, saying it violated the dictates of her position.
The Liberty Times reported that Ho Hai-hsin, whose daughter was murdered in 2002, disagreed with Wang’s arguments. He said it is not fair for the Taiwanese people to pay for the living expenses of criminals sentenced to death. As a retired elementary teacher, Ho said he has taught students for 37 years to abide by the law. Now the government takes the lead in violating the law.
In a letter published in the United Daily News, Lu Chin-te, whose teenage son was murdered by kidnappers in 1987, said Wang should run for a legislative position and pass a law to abolish the death penalty. She is not qualified to be a justice minister. She is like a soldier who refuses to shoot an enemy, a traffic policeman who declines to issue speeding tickets, or a tax officer who does not hand out tax bills. Lu said there are 5.4 billion people in countries that maintain capital punishment. This means a majority of people worldwide accepts the death penalty.
Some premise for abolishing the death penalty
Taiwan’s news media have expressed differing views on this issue. In offering some support for Wang, the Taipei-based China Times said in an editorial that the legislators approved the law to implement two covenants of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and stipulated that Taiwan has to amend its current laws before December 10, 2012 for implementation. Therefore, Taiwan’s death penalty policy will need to be changed.
According to the paper, there are two regulations regarding the death penalty in the declaration: 1) The right for death row inmates to appeal for lesser punishment – Taiwan still lacks the legal procedure for reducing the punishment in individual cases, and 2) Any nation that supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but has not abolished the death penalty cannot prevent or defer the efforts to scrap capital punishment, and its justice ministry cannot refuse the deferment of executions. This shows Wang does have a legal foundation behind her argument.
No timetable for implementing the executions
President Ma ying-jeou’s office issued a statement saying that as a country ruled by law, there must be legal grounds to commute the executions of those who have been sentenced to death. If no such legal grounds exist, then the Ministry of Justice should handle the executions accordingly.
During his tenure as justice minister (1993-1996), the president said that the general public supported the penalty by 74 percent and very little has changed. After 15 years, about 72 percent still support the death penalty. While serving in that office, he signed orders to execute over 70 people. President Ma did emphasize that the United Nations has passed a resolution on a global deferment of the death penalty, but the resolution is different from a treaty because it is not binding. Still, he noted, Taiwan must not remain ignorant of the resolution given its desire to be involved in the international community.
Tseng, the new justice minister, has promised to make sure that the death penalty cases get a final review before the sentences are carried out. Beside the 44 individuals on death row, there are another 77 cases appealing their death penalty sentences. Tseng stressed, if all the legal procedures are completed, and no claims of legal remedies are necessary, he will implement the execution with no set timetable in mind. Taiwan’s last execution was in 2005.