Taiwan's Death-Penalty Debate Could Influence Asia. (2011/04/15, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)

Taiwan's Death-Penalty Debate Could Influence Asia 

APRIL 15, 2011, 8:49 PM HKT 

The ongoing debate in Taiwan about capital punishment could influence China and its other East Asian neighbors, according to a report from human-rights organization Dui Hua Foundation.

Although more than 70% of Taiwanese support capital punishment, debate about it came to the fore this year when president Ma Ying-jeou apologized in January for the wrongful execution of a soldier for the murder of a child in 1996. The government also executed five prisoners without notifying their families in March.

The executions attracted condemnation from the European Union and advocacy groups, and marked the second time Taiwan executed convicts following an informal four-year moratorium.

Starting in 2006 under President Chen Shui-bian's administration, the informal ban was continued by president Ma Ying-jeou's minister of justice, Wang Ching-feng, an outspoken opponent of the capital punishment.  Ms. Wang became the center of a media firestorm when she said she would rather "go to hell" than authorize the executions. Since her resignation in March last year, Taiwan has renewed its use of capital punishment, executing 10 prisoners.

Dui Hua argues that the high profile of the apology and the condemnations stirred by the executions could influence policies in neighboring China, Japan and South Korea:

"Besides some widely criticized executions in China, none in recent times in that part of the world have been condemned as much as those in Taiwan, where the current political environment holds little promise of the 40 who remain on its death row. At least the contested political process in Taiwan is likely to ensure that a healthy public debate continues, a debate that will influence the fate of capital punishment there and in Asia more broadly," the report said.

Polls taken in Taiwan have shown more nearly three-quarters of the population support the death penalty. But the Dui Hua report says there is growing political will to develop alternatives to capital punishment without actually banning it outright. Last year in Taiwan a justice ministry task force recommended that longer mandatory life sentences and more stringent parole reviews could encourage judges to opt for life sentences in place of death sentences.

A life sentence without parole, called a "special life sentence" in Taiwan, is as popular as capital punishment among the public, according to Dui Hua. Inmates serving life sentences in Taiwan currently stay in jail an average of only 12.8 years, compared with 20 years in Japan.

Though it remains to be seen whether Taiwan's stance on the death penalty will change anytime soon, the report argues that a trend away from capital punishment across the region is appearing in China as well.

"The death penalty, like any punishment, is subject to errors that undermine its legitimacy. In Taiwan and Japan, prisoners on death row have been exonerated and freed. Torture has been used to extract confessions from innocent people who have later been executed, as seen with the presidential apology in Taiwan. In such instances, it's possible to draw parallels between China and its neighbors," it said. "China has also set death row prisoners free, admitted that innocent people have been executed, and reassessed its death penalty practices; China has made much of its increasingly ‘careful' use of capital punishment, and the Supreme People's Court's more stringent final review of death sentences has been credited in helping to reduce executions."

-Paul Mozur.