Taiwan Must Come In From the Cold on the Death Penalty

The 2016 elections provide an opportunity for politicians to end the practice of capital punishment in Taiwan
Photo: TAEDP / 廢除死刑推動聯盟

The recent execution of eight people by Indonesia has once again given the world pause for thought on the death penalty and its abolition. Cynics say, “Capital Punishment — those who don’t have the capital get the punishment.” And that is true, with the poor and discriminated against mostly on the receiving end of it. The resultant international outcry against Indonesia and the death penalty has brought out the usual arguments. As far as Taiwan is concerned, I would like to think that in this lame duck period, no inmate will be executed and that if and when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) takes control, it can announce a moratorium on the subject as human rights is one of the party’s main constitutional concerns.

Does Taiwan want the world shouting at it? Yet in the heat of elections, politicians do crazy things to appeal to the mob by pretending to be “tough on crime,” so anything can happen. I am assuming (though I should never do so) that most of you dear readers are sensible, intelligent and perhaps liberal-minded people who are already against the death penalty and believe it should be abolished as soon as possible. I am aware that it is said that 70% of Taiwanese want to retain it. But was a nation-wide referendum conducted on it? Education, best-practice and science-based evidence are often abandoned when political power and control over the people is the goal. Just ask your Minister of Justice.

“Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen” may be an example in favor of the use of the death penalty as a deterrent. But Taiwan has advanced from such 17th century thinking. Last time I checked, it does not dunk witches, brand children or jail homosexuals. Even in 17th century England, from whence this quote came, the establishment realized that capital punishment simply did not work. From a high (or is that a low) mark of the end of the 17th century when there were 220 different offences which could get you the rope, down to just five offences by 1861, ultimately murder was abolished in England in 1969 (the four remaining capital offences, which were rather archaic, were abolished later). But as we know, the death penalty does not actually reduce crime or murders, nor does it make society safer. For example there is little difference in the murder rates between Hong Kong (which abolished death penalty in 1993) and Singapore.

Science shows us how wrong we can be. Killing someone is irreversible; putting them in jail is not. We all know of the innocents killed by the Taiwanese authorities. Would you trust that same judiciary with the life of your child? In the U.S., one in 25, or 4.1%, of everyone given the death penalty is likely innocent, and that is a conservative figure. There are over 150 exonerated death row survivors in the U.S. alone. There are more non-death row cases of exoneration. Almost every month we hear of disgraceful cases of injustice, where people were given the death penalty, often in circumstances where the prosecutors and police knew that the person was innocent, or at least that the evidence was doubtful but kept hidden from the defense. Nearer to home, China leads the world in killing people. Does Taiwan want to be associated with that sort of behavior? Japan gets it wrong too. In the U.S., the leading causes of wrongful convictions are: eyewitness misidentification testimony which was a factor in 72% of post conviction DNA exonerated cases, invalidated or improper forensic science which played a role in 47% of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing, false confessions and incriminating statements which led to wrongful convictions in 28% of cases and lastly informants which contributed to wrongful convictions in 15% of cases.

I see Taiwan informants make a healthy living out of such an industry “while those whose tips lead to sentences of 15 years or more, life imprisonment or death penalties are eligible to receive from NT$6.7 million to NT$10 million.” One can imagine what sort of behavior that breeds. I have to share with you a quote from an American prosecutor who was responsible for sending a man to death row who was later found to be innocent. “All too late, I learned that the testimony was pure junk science at its evil worst.” It’s an excellent quote that sums up much of what could be said involving discussions on everything from decriminalizing drugs to educational reform to finding yourself in prison to China’s claims on Taiwan. What more arguments do you want to hear — even the doctor who invented the U.S. lethal injection has his doubts.

Extrapolate all these statistics of innocence, add them to all the figures that we will never know of and consider just how many people there are on Taiwan’s death row that are innocent. Following on from that guess, how many are in Taiwan’s prisons generally that are innocent, that never received a fair trial or who are mentally ill and shouldn’t be there in the first place. How many do you think there are? This by the way ties in with earlier discussions on prison reform and overcrowding. I was reading a book on the Nationalists war with the Communists and it said, “The nationalists had a sophisticated network of prisons, many built and run according to the highest standards current in Europe and the United States at the time. But they never had more than 90,000 convicts, as they used fines, short sentences, general amnesties, remission of sentence and parole to keep people out of gaol.” Compare that with the total number of inmates kept in prisons in Taiwan for the year 2014 — it was 57,633. What does that tell you? It surely shows that Taiwan’s judiciary needs a root and branch overhaul. Moreover, are you happy to pay for all that?

The death penalty is steeped in hypocrisy and politics. There are 360 Indonesian citizens facing the death penalty all over the world, including for drug offences. Nine of them are in China. The Indonesian government has paid “blood money” to countries like Saudi Arabia to get them taken off death row and lobbies intensively for their sake. Indonesian President Joko Widodo is playing domestic politics by using the death penalty in an effort to look strong and garner right wing votes. Jokowi (as he is known) was quoted saying that “he had not read any of the individual files, and would not. When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he was said to have spent around 30 minutes on each capital case”. Australia too has come in for claims that its death penalty stance is hypocritical. For example Australia never criticizes the U.S. for its death penalty position and in the case of the “Bali bombers” gave support that they be executed by Indonesia. As with most crimes, it is the minions who get caught and pay the price, rarely the bosses. As for Taiwan’s death penalty politics, the KMT is renowned for its past excesses, its use in distracting public attention and kowtowing to China’s wishes.

When it comes down to it, people will often just say it’s a matter of simple revenge. To kill the monster that killed your loved one is an understandable emotion. “To hell with the legality of the death penalty and the rights of the condemned — where are the victims’ rights!” At least that argument is more honest. I could point out that the condemned, statistically, may be innocent, or mentally disturbed or under age or from a deprived background or a hundred other “excuses.” None of this is likely to make a shred of difference to the victim’s family. I can only highlight that “Overall, the death penalty is in decline. In 1977, only 16 states or territories had abolished it in law or practice; but last month Fiji became the 99th to abolish it for all crimes. Six more reserve it for exceptional circumstances and anther 35 have not used it for at least 10 years. The UN general assembly has seen growing support for a global moratorium.” To read the stories of some of the victims’ families who have grappled with this problem to a much greater extent than hopefully any of us will need to, should make you think carefully.

Of course Taiwan’s use of the death penalty “can and does violate human rights.” Every report on Taiwan’s use of it and every international human rights lawyer who has ever set foot on the island has said so, often and at great length. The frustration at the lack of real progress was summed up by a November 17, 2012, article in the Taipei Times by the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty which said, “If the justice minister insists on carrying out executions at this point, the government should stop inviting international experts to Taiwan to review its implementation of the ICCPR and ICESCR. It will only be a waste of time and of taxpayers’ money.”

Weeks later, Taiwan executed six people, in 2013 it executed six people and in 2014 it executed five people. The May 2014 Death Penalty Project’s “report on Taiwan’s legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” concluded by stating, “Taiwan’s system of capital punishment is seriously flawed. In the face of the domestic evidence, and in the context of major death penalty failures in the rest of the world, the wisest course of action for Taiwan is to end it, not mend it. This course of action would require political courage; Taiwan’s leaders have expressed that at several points in the recent past. The future of capital punishment in Taiwan is in their hands.”

Might I add that with the elections in January 2016, the future of Taiwan in all respects is in the hands of you, dear Taiwanese voter. The world is watching.


A.R. is a former foreign diplomat based in Taipei.

2 Responses to “Taiwan Must Come In From the Cold on the Death Penalty”

May 01, 2015 at 12:23 pm, TaiwanLawBlog said:

Great article per usual. It is important to note that the 79.7% support for capital punishment that the Ministry of Justice always touts is around 7 years old and disregards the other findings in the same study (http://www.moj.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=259538&CtNode=37358&mp=001), which was that 56% supported abolition of the death penalty if the punishment were replaced with life without parole, and 65.5% supported converting a death sentence to life sentence if the prisoner were to repent. Even the government’s own study shows that public support for capital punishment is not as unwavering as Ma Ying-jeou and Luo Ying-shay often characterize it. A 2010 independent study, the result of which is also on the linked page, shows that only 45.1% of those surveyed were absolutely against abolition, a far cry from 79.7%. Of course this study is never mentioned when the government tries to justify the executions even though it’s on the MOJ’s own website.


May 03, 2015 at 5:15 am, Mike Fagan said:

“Killing someone is irreversible; putting them in jail is not.”

Excuse me, but that is simply not true. Once you have put somebody in jail for a year, there is no way they can ever get that year back again. Jail time is also irreversible. What I believe you mean to say is that jail time can be in some way compensated for in cases of wrongful or unsound conviction, e.g. by providing large cash sums. The adequacy of such compensation is another question altogether. And jail time really is irreversibly expensive to taxpayers, society at large, and not least the accused him or herself whose life may very likely be completely ruined by it.

On the main subject:

My own opposition to the death penalty is on two grounds. First, there is the practical problem that political systems cannot be trusted to sufficiently minimize the errors they inevitably make in the process of conviction. And then there is the moral point that crimes inflicted upon other people involve the destruction of other people’s values – not mine.

Whilst I can see that there must be a duty on third parties of establishing due process in determining a verdict of either guilty or not guilty, it is not clear what duty falls upon me or any other third party to determine what the sentence should be. I have no problem with the death penalty being available for the very worst crimes, but equally, I have no problem with victims (or their families) choosing to forgo the death penalty if they wish – so long as other people have the legal right of self-defence and the defence of others (including the right to kill) if or when the accused party attempts similar crimes in the future.


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