Death Penalty: Fig Leaf for Government's Incompetence

Death Penalty: Fig Leaf for Government's Incompetence

Lin Hsin-yi

The spring of 2014 marked the season of restlessness and discontent in Taiwan. The ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), made a unilateral move on 17 March 2014 at the Legislative Yuan (Parliament) that would force the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China to the legislative floor without giving it a clause-by-clause review as previously established in a June 2013 agreement with the opposition party, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). To protest against the move of the KMT, crowds of people thrust into the Legislative Yuan building and occupied the legislative floor on the evening of 18 March 2014, while several hundred protesters remained outside the building demanding the clause-by-clause review of the CSSTA, and the adoption of public monitoring rules before such review. Hundreds of other protesters tried to occupy the Executive Yuan (Premier’s office) on the night of 24 March 2014, but were brutally dispersed by the police. The movement, also called the Sunflower Movement, lasted for twenty-three days and received wide attention from the international media.

Soon after the anti-CSSTA protest, on 27 April 2014, over fifty thousand people occupied the main roads in front of the Taipei train station and paralyzed the traffic for an anti-nuclear energy road rally. At 2:30 a.m. on the following day (28 April 2014), Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin ordered to disband the unarmed peaceful protesters with water cannon, causing injuries to several people. The government’s brutal action enraged Taiwan citizens. However, the government did not know how to respond to the disappointment and anger from the civil society. Later, in the evening of 29 April 2014, news came that the Minister of Justice, Luo Ying-shay, had signed earlier in the day the first batch of death warrants; the first warrants she signed since taking office. Five death row inmates, Deng Guo-liang, Liu Yen-guo, Dai Wen-qing, and brothers Du Ming-lang and Du Ming-xiong were subsequently executed.

The first transfer of power in the past fifty-five years in Taiwan took place in 2000. The then elected President, Chen Shui-bian, from the DPP announced the policy of phasing out the death penalty. As a result, the number of executions decreased every year since then. From 2006 onward, a de facto moratorium was applied in Taiwan. Taiwan experienced the second transfer of power in 2008, when Ma Ying-jeou from the KMT was elected President. In 2009, the Taiwan government ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) by passing the Act to Implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. By 2009, four years had passed without any executions in Taiwan. Many human rights workers and international death penalty abolition organizations had hoped to keep the moratorium. Moreover, they hoped that Taiwan could become the next death-penalty-free country in Asia.

Contrary to these expectations, the Minister of Justice, Tseng Yung-Fu, signed four death warrants on 30 April 2010. Four executions were carried out. Execution of death row inmates continued in the succeeding years: five in 2012, six in 2013, and another six in 2014. With the ratification of the international human rights covenants, the government not only failed to reduce the number of executions; instead, it increased the number of executions every year. Tseng ordered twenty-one executions in total during his term. The current Justice Minister, Luo Ying-shay, has ordered to carry out five executions so far despite her media statement that she personally preferred the abolition of the death penalty because she was a Buddhist.

Everyone was puzzled. Why did the government ratify the international human rights covenants if it had no intention to abide by them? Article Six of ICCPR does not require a State-party to abolish the death penalty immediately, however, it can be affirmatively concluded that the State-parties should reduce the use of the death penalty and work towards its abolition. The Taiwan government has completely ignored its obligation. We wonder why.

All the executions since 2010, when the four-year moratorium was lifted, took place when the government approval rate was low. For instance, executions were carried out in 2010 after the controversy over the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China broke out. More executions were carried out after the re-opening of investigation of the wrongly executed Air Force Private Chiang Kuo-ching in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, executions were ordered after the disclosure of high-level government officials’ corruption and serious criminal offenses that fueled public indignation. Finally, the executions in 2014 were obvious examples of using execution to divert the frustration of the people.

More and more Taiwanese people have seen through the government’s problem-shifting tactics. The Du Brothers executed last year were actually found not guilty in their district court trial. In their case, the problematic Cross Strait Agreement on Cracking Down on Crimes Collectively and Judicial Cooperation between Taiwan and China was applied because the offense took place in China. Prior to the execution, the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty and the Taiwan Association for Innocence both considered their case as a potential wrongful conviction. After the execution of the Du Brothers, reactions from the society were remarkably different from the other executions in the past four years. People started to question the motivations of the executions and were concerned that state violence was threatening people in various ways.

Taiwan still has a long way to go before it abolishes the death penalty. In my opinion, the government constitutes the biggest obstacle to the abolition of death penalty since it takes the lead in breaking the laws and violating the international covenants. Even though the government has ratified the two human rights covenants, it is simply unwilling to fulfill its obligations. And since Taiwan is not a member-state of the United Nations, the Human Rights Committee does not recognize its ratification of the two human rights covenants. But for the death penalty abolition organizations and the defense lawyers, the passage of the law to implement the international human rights covenants in Taiwan provided a basis for arguing cases in court based on international human rights standards. Failure to use that law may even lead the Taiwan government to shirk its duty to fulfill the obligations enshrined in the covenants. Some preliminary results have been obtained by lawyers citing the international human rights standards in courts. Before 2010, most appeals in the Supreme Court of defendants with death sentences were not assisted by lawyers. This lack of assistance from lawyers in appeals to the Supreme Court was a widely accepted practice and not considered unlawful. But the practice could have affected the right to fair trial of the defendants. After 2012, with the enforcement of the two human rights covenants, all appeals of death sentences by defendants in the Supreme Court were mandatorily assisted by defense lawyers. Court hearings and oral debates have also been held on these appeals. This is one example of a little progress on the way to the abolition of the death penalty. Nevertheless, we will not give up hope and continue to strive for the abolition of the death penalty.


* Additional information on the death penalty situation in Taiwan can be found in these articles:

Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty, When a Trigger-Happy Government Willfully Uses Violence to Threaten Its People, How Can They Ask the People to Renounce Violence?,

The Death Penalty Project, The Death Penalty in Taiwan: A Report on Taiwan’s Legal Obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 2014, full report available at

European Economic and Trade Office, The European Union and death penalty in Taiwan, abolition_death_penalty/index_en.htm

* Lin Hsin-yi is the Executive Director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty.

* Originally published in HURIGHTS OSAKA website