Taiwan Executes 5 Death Row Inmates as Political Crisis Deepens

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Taiwan Executes 5 Death Row Inmates as Political Crisis Deepens

J. Michael Cole reports from Taipei for The Diplomat.

Taiwan Executes 5 Death Row Inmates as Political Crisis Deepens
Credit: Photo by J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat
Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice on April 29 ordered the sudden execution of five individuals on death row in a move that has been widely seen as an attempt to distract the public amid snowballing crises over nuclear energy, a trade pact with China and a proposed experimental free-trade zone. Deng Kuo-liang, Liu Yan-kuo, Dai Wen-ching, and brothers Tu Ming-lang and Tu Ming-hsiung were executed by firing squad in the evening. According to Amnesty International, the suspects’ families and lawyers were not informed in advance. Although the Ma Ying-jeou administration has expressed its intention to abolish the death penalty in line with international standards, its actions have cast doubt on that commitment.Since the lifting of a de facto moratorium on the death penalty from December 2005 to April 2010, the Ma government has executed a total of 26 death row inmates. A dozen were executed between December 2012 and April 2013, in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called “a step backwards for Taiwan’s justice system and Taiwan’s official rhetoric in support of human rights.” Taipei has fallen back on opinion polls showing 76 percent support for the death penalty to justify inaction on the matter.

Monday’s executions occurred amid an unprecedented political crisis on the island, and many critics of the Ma government have argued that the timing was not by accident. On the night of the executions, the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, the Judicial Reform Foundation, and the Taiwan Association for Innocence drew a direct link between the executions and a wave of protests against government policies, which have dragged the administration’s support rates to lows unprecedented in Taiwan’s democratic history. On March 18, activists from the Sunflower Movement launched a three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan (LY) over the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), an agreement signed in secrecy with China and which critics claim did not receive proper review and scrutiny. The occupation followed a series of protests stemming back to June 2013, when the pact was signed in Shanghai, that were altogether ignored by the government.

In recent weeks, protests have also erupted over improper police action during the occupation of the LY and other recent demonstrations; the role of gangsters in politics; construction of a problem-plagued nuclear power plant (prompting a weeklong hunger strike by a revered political figure); stalled revisions to the Referendum Act; and the rushing by ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators of the review of an experimental free-trade zone using tactics very similar to those that sparked the crisis over the CSSTA last month. In reaction to the daily protests, the government has turned the entire administrative area of Taipei into a warzone, deploying barbed wire, fences, and riot police outside major government buildings.

Fearing a split within the party as pressure grows on the government, Ma, who is also party chairman, has sought to consolidate his power over the executive and legislative branches of the government by slashing one-third of the KMT Central Committee members and bringing potential opponents Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, Taichung Mayor Jason Hu, and New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu on board as deputy chairmen, a classic move employed by autocratic governments throughout history (I strongly encourage readers to look up the “selectorate theory” and read Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith’s The Dictator’s Handbook). Every effort has also been made to silence potential dissenters within the KMT, which holds the majority of seats in the legislature.

In a press release on April 29, Taiwan’s human rights and anti-death penalty groups condemned the “decision to carry out the death penalty at a time when people all around the country have risen up in protest of its preposterous policies …  By using the death penalty as a desperate means to salvage public approval, this government has shown to the world once and for all its savage and callous nature.”

Minister of Justice Luo Ying-shay, formerly President Ma’s personal lawyer, had said in a recent statement that she would order executions “when necessary,” remarks that drew accusations that a desperate government had turned the death penalty into a political tool to distract, if not threaten, the public in a time of crisis. This shows that the “administration will not shy away from using human lives to gain public support,” the TAEDP wrote, adding, “This is a blatant display of the authoritarian tendencies of the KMT regime.” Under the KMT’s authoritarian rule in Taiwan from 1949 until the lifting of martial law in 1987, a period known as the White Terror, as many as 4,000 people were executed on politically motivated charges, according to HRW.

Two of the executions carried out on April 29 are also highly problematic for reasons that have little to do with their suspicious timing, and everything to do with the Ma administration’s implementation of backdoor deals with authoritarian China. Tu Ming-lang and his brother Tu Ming-hsiung were accused of murdering a Taiwanese businessman, three of his Taiwanese employees, and a Chinese woman at a chemical plant in Nanhai City, Guangdong Province on July 16, 2001. Their case highlights the potential pitfalls of relying on evidence provided by Chinese authorities in criminal cases.

Before we turn to this, it is important to note that the controversy over that particular murder case stems from agreements, specifically the Agreement on Jointly Cracking Down on Crime and Mutual Legal Assistance Across the Strait, whose implementation, like the CSSTA, was undermined by dysfunctional government mechanisms and poor oversight. Signed in April 2009 by the two quasi-governmental agencies in charge of cross-strait relations, the Agreement has yet to be properly reviewed by the legislature, and yet the Ma administration has informed Beijing that it is in force. Soon after it was signed, the Executive Yuan decreed that the Agreement did not necessitate revisions to Taiwanese laws and expedited it to the LY for “reference.” Five years on, the Agreement remains stuck in the Internal Administrative Committee and has never been put to a vote, despite calls by opposition lawmakers that proper administrative mechanisms must be enforced before the Agreement can be implemented. Notably, Chang Ching-chung, the motel operator-turned-KMT legislator who was at the heart of the controversy over the CSSTA in March this year, headed the joint meeting on June 10, 2009, and it was he who made the decision to postpone a vote indefinitely.

As a result, after the Tu brothers and their father were arrested in Taiwan, the courts relied on evidence provided by the Chinese authorities to determine the case. All three men claimed they had nothing to do with the murders, and the father died while in jail. Anyone who follows developments in China is aware of the highly problematic nature of that country’s judicial system, which is rife with corruption and is often little more than a tool for local politicians to settle scores with their opponents — including dissidents. Confessions in China, often made under duress, are highly unreliable and severely criticized by human rights organizations. And yet, democratic Taiwan had no compunction in using the confessions made by the Tus obtained from China’s Public Security Bureau (PSB) thanks to the aforementioned mutual legal assistance agreement. Besides the highly questionable — and often contradictory accounts — by witnesses in Guangdong, the Tus were not given the opportunity to examine them, a violation of due process and their rights under the Republic of China Constitution. Although a lower court initially found the brothers not guilty on insufficient evidence, the ruling was subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court, leading to their April 29 execution.

Whether the Tus were guilty of the murders or not is not the main point here, though of course we should take the possibility that they were wrongfully executed very seriously. The crucially important aspect of this case is that it sets a dangerous precedent, which can be abused for political reasons. What if the Tus, who operated a firm in Nanhai at the time, were being bullied by the local government, not unusual treatment for “Taishang” working in China, who rely on the whims of the (often corrupt) local authorities to be able to continue their operations? Or what if the true perpetrators of a crime were close associates, perhaps even family members, of an influential local official who wanted to cover up their crime?

The chain of custody and, as we saw, the unreliable nature of the evidence, witnesses, and confessions produced in the Chinese legal system are too fundamentally flawed and politicized for any outside court to rely on them alone when making judgments, even more so when this involves the death penalty.

Furthermore, this case opens the possibility that other Taiwanese who run afoul of the law in China — this time for political reasons, including pro-democracy activism — could end up facing conviction in Taiwan based solely on evidence provided by the PSB. It is not unimaginable that in some instances, the evidence could be fabricated and used against dissidents whose activism is inconvenient to both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT.