Taiwan activists battle in death penalty-triggered political crisis
It all started with a statement that every abolitionist would like to hear from their government. As she was being criticised for refusing to sign execution warrants, Taiwan’s Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng (photo) published an open letter earlier this month reaffirming her support for the moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
Criticism intensified, and she gave a press conference on March 11, during which she said: “I would rather step down than sign any death warrant … If these convicts can have an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves, I would be very happy to be executed or even go to hell in their stead.”
But Wang’s courageous position backfired on her: later that night, after President Ma Ying-jeou and members of her Kuomintang majority party failed to support her publicly ahead of upcoming elections, she had to resign.
That event marked the beginning of an uphill battle for the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) and the Taiwan section of Amnesty International, both member organisations of the World Coalition.
Supporters of the death penalty, including popular performer and mother of murder victim Pai Ping-ping, called for the execution of Taiwan’s 44 death row inmates.
“The media extensively covered Pai’s strong opposition to moratorium. This unfortunately encouraged more bloodthirsty politicians to bash Wang for the non-execution, which in turn led to more sensational and irrational media report on the issue (especially TV talk shows),” TAEDP’s executive director Lin Hsin-yi (photo below) wrote.
Her organization embarked on a patient effort to try and turn the tide of public opinion as polls showed that around 75% of the Taiwanese supported the death penalty. Within days of hard work, they managed to make their voice heard. “Now the media treats opinions against the death penalty comparatively fair. Recently, articles pro or con the death penalty with great arguments could be seen every day in main newspapers,” Lin added.
Abolitionists started by explaining the role of the justice minister in death penalty cases: “The Code of Criminal Procedure thus makes clear that the justice minister is much more than a rubber stamp on the way to the executioner. The minister’s role is to ensure that the utmost caution is exercised in death penalty cases,” TAEDP wrote in a statement on March 10. They then ensured that the acting justice minister who filled in for Wang agreed with that position.
The World Coalition writes to president Ma
The World Coalition coordinated with its Taiwanese members to send a letter to President Ma on March 12. American law professor and World Coalition treasurer Speedy Rice, who visited President Ma two years ago and was told that Taiwan would keep moving towards abolition, wrote in the letter: “Your public and official assurance to us in 2008 should not be overlooked or dismissed due to transitory political debate and Wang’s resignation.”
Other World Coalition members, including the international secretariat of Amnesty International, the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) and the International Federation of Action by Christians Against Torture (FIACAT) reacted with public statements and letter to the Taiwanese authorities.
TAEDP also stepped in to protect the life of Taiwanese death row inmates. In addition to representations made since 2007 to question the constitutionality of the trials of 14 of them, TAEDP launched fresh legal action on their behalf to question the very compatibility of the death penalty with the constitution.
“Because we can’t predict the stance of the new Minister, in order to make sure of our safe ground, we are trying to contact the remaining 30 death row inmates or their families to have them authorise us to appeal for constitutional interpretation for them,” Lin wrote.
“Our priority is to extend the time of the unofficial moratorium in Taiwan,” she added. No execution has taken place there since 2005.
The World Coalition’s letter to President Ma
– in English
– in Chinese
Wang photo: VOA Photo/Chen Su