Taiwan: Can Tsai Ing-Wen Change the Politics of Death?
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Taiwan: Can Tsai Ing-Wen Change the Politics of Death?

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Following her electoral victory last month, KMT lawmakers have clashed on several issues with Tsai Ing-wen, who will be inaugurated as Taiwan’s first female president on May 20, and her Democratic Peoples Party. Among them, Tsai has been pushed to reveal her stance on the abolition of the death penalty.

While capital punishment remains relatively popular in Taiwan, Lin Hsin-yi, Executive Director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty, has pointed out that none of the KMT lawmakers who attacked the DPP over the abolition of the death penalty have been reelected. For her, “this congress is more friendly to human rights.” What will this mean for the death penalty in Taiwan?

In early June 2015, six death row inmates were executed at four locations around Taiwan. The executions attracted some positive domestic attention but raised numerous concerns internationally. Taiwan has come under fire from international human rights organizations on several occasions for failing to adhere to procedural guidelines and for apparently using capital punishment for political purposes. Such accusations could amount to violations under international law but this could change with Tsai and the DPP, which has tended to support abolition.

The Politics of Death

The Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) has observed that, “all the executions since 2010, when the four-year moratorium was lifted, took place when the government approval rate was low.”

Taiwan had a moratorium on capital punishment from 2006 to 2010.

In March 2010, then Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng voiced support for the abolition of capital punishment and stated she would refuse to sign any execution warrants. This fueled a pro-death penalty social movement led by entertainer Pai Ping-ping, whose daughter had been murdered in 1997. That led to Wang’s resignation. Tseng Yung-fu took over at Justice and reinstated the death penalty. In April, negotiations surrounding a trade agreement between China and Taiwan saw public approval of the government plummet. On April 30, 2010 the first executions since 2006 took place.

The Ministry of Justice consistently denies allegations of impropriety, but has refused to provide records of its meetings on death row inmates or on the criteria for deciding the timing of an execution.

There have been executions, timed around episodes of low government approval, every year since the moratorium was lifted. The executions in June are emblematic.

In March 2015 four subway commuters were killed in Taipei and in May an 8-year-old girl was killed at her school. Public outcry demanded the death penalty for the attackers. Abolitionist politicians and rights campaigners were harassed and threatened. In early June, then opposition party chairperson, Tsai drew considerable domestic media attention for a high-profile trip to the United States, at the expense of the already unpopular KMT. Amid public outrage over the heinous murders and growing popularity for the opposition party, the timing of the 2015 executions is suspect. There were also several legal irregularities.

The initial list of those to be executed included Chiou Ho-shun, who had been sentenced in 1989 following four months of secret detention and reports that he had been tortured into confession. Amnesty International has repeatedly called for his release.

Three of the men who were executed had filed special appeals on the day of their executions. This could reflect either a cursory or non-existent review. There has never been a successful case of a death row inmate filing a special appeal or commutation.

Lawyers for the three inmates were not notified of the rejection of the appeal until after the executions. More concerning, two of the men executed in June, Wang Hsiu-fang and Wang Chun-chin, had no legal representation at their final trial before the Supreme Court.

Taiwan’s Criminal Procedure Code does not guarantee legal defense for final appeals. In 2012 a draft was proposed that would change this in cases involving a minimum punishment of three years but it has not yet become law. Many current death row inmates did not have lawyers at their final trials.

In 2012, the final appeal retrial in one death row case found the three defendants not guilty of the 1991 murder for which they had spent more than 20 years in prison.

This raises concern over the right to a fair trial, which includes the right to legal defense and appeal. If political calculations have been behind the timing of executions since 2010, it could constitute an arbitrary imposition of the death penalty, which would amount to a violation of the right to life.

International law does not explicitly ban capital punishment but places strict procedural guidelines on those countries that have not abolished the death penalty.

Taiwan and International Law

In 2009, Taiwan announced that it had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations but effective ratification was accomplished through the Implementation Act, establishing that all domestic law align with the Covenants.

Article 6 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to life and protection from arbitrary loss of life. It prohibits the death penalty when it may constitute a violation of other rights, most notably the prohibition against torture.

Preventing the arbitrary deprivation of life requires that any decision to impose the death penalty must be narrowly circumscribed by clear and transparent principles in line with the Covenant.

This requires strict adherence to Article 14’s right to a fair trial. The Human Rights Committee has noted that, “the imposition of a sentence of death upon conclusion of a trial, in which the provisions of article 14 of the Covenant have not been respected, constitutes a violation of the right to life.”

Anyone sentenced to death is entitled to seek pardon. This is enshrined in ICCPR Article 6(4). Number 8 of the 1984 Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty adds that no execution shall be carried out pending an appeal, pardon or commutation. The right to seek pardon carries the expectation that in some circumstances a pardon may be granted, otherwise the right is relatively empty.

Although not legally binding, UN General Assembly resolution 65/206 calls upon all states to “make available relevant information with regard to their use of the death penalty, which can contribute to possible informed and transparent national debates.” This is important for ensuring a fair trial and strict adherence to procedural rules at every stage of the process, from the initial trial to final appeal and scheduling of the execution.

Tsai Ing-wen’s Challenge

While advocates for the abolition of the death penalty have felt Tsai Ing-wen hasn’t been explicit enough in her position, KMT lawmakers have challenged her for supporting abolition. Among them was Alex Tsai, who was quite vocal on pro-death penalty issues during his campaign but was ultimately not reelected. This failure for pro-death penalty lawmakers points to a possible decrease in voter emphasis on maintaining the death penalty. This presents the best opening for a return to a moratorium and steps toward abolition without sacrificing political capital for the DPP.

Tsai Ing-wen is likely to face conflicting pressure moving forward, says Lin of TAEDP. The new president may face public pressure to carry out an execution from those in favor of continuing the death penalty.

Counteracting that is international pressure. In 2013, Taiwan received a delegation of independent experts to review its implementation of the ICCPR and ICESCR. The second review will take place in early 2017 and the death penalty is likely to be a high priority. If Tsai wants to demonstrate her commitment to human rights she will need to consider Taiwan’s implementation of the two Covenants.

Who Tsai appoints as the Minister of Justice is among the first key indicators. Lawyer Gu Lixiong, known for his support for abolition, was assumed my many to be a likely appointee but his election to the legislature rules him out.

In 2009, abolition-minded Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng created a working group on the death penalty, which included NGOs, lawyers, and academics. Although the working group was dismantled shortly after her resignation, Tsai has been advised to create something similar, which could also support public education and participate in a national dialogue on abolishing the death penalty.

Even if abolitionist-minded lawmakers are able to float a bill, there’s too little understanding and support for the passage of any such law, which is where the importance of such a working group can be seen.

Moving Forward

Until a more thorough investigation into the use and potential political abuse of the death penalty takes place, Taiwanese human rights groups say Tsai should announce an immediate moratorium. She should promise to more closely implement the ICCPR and encourage the Legislative Yuan to establish a National Human Rights Commission in line with the Paris Principles. Although in December the Executive Yuan granted a Freedom of Information Request filed by TAEPD last August requesting the Ministry of Justice to reveal its decision making process on signing execution orders, the system remains far from transparent. How Tsai responds to these issues leading up to and following her inauguration in May will matter.

Michael Caster is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Previously he worked as a human rights advocate and civil society consultant based in East Asia. 

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