Phasing out the death penalty is overdue

2008-05-01 TAIPEI TIMES

Lin Hsin-y, Translated by Ted Yang

Even before assuming office as minister of justice, lawyer Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) is already facing a dilemma: Should capital punishment be abolished?

Wang has long devoted herself to human-rights issues. She made a deep impression on me by choosing a tough road when dealing with such issues as the 921 Earthquake reconstruction project and Taiwan’s comfort women.

On the issue of the death penalty, she is willing to face and recognize her human-rights values and say that she opposes capital punishment. This not surprising at all, but she will still be facing pressure from all sides.

The biggest pressure will be the concern of the public: Without capital punishment, will crime rates increase and what should we say to future victims?

However, abolishing capital punishment does not mean discharging prisoners, but rather that we want strict punishment of criminals.

Many culprits do not fear death, but how about life imprisonment? Would 30-year, 40-year or even 50-year sentences be more frightening than two bullets? This is the way criminals should face their misdeeds.

Moreover, wouldn’t it be better compensation if criminals were given proper labor assignments in prison and their earnings were returned to society or victims of their crimes?

A judicial system is not perfect and the dead cannot be brought back to life. In recent years, many shocking cases of injustice in the US and Europe have been uncovered thanks to DNA technology, so we cannot overlook the possibility that the wrong person could be executed.

I understand why the family of a crime victim would oppose abolishing capital punishment. I sympathize with their pain and frustration, but are executions the best and only way to help?

For most families, a comprehensive protection system for victims might be more important than capital punishment. Our government, however has done very little to explore this alternative.

Should capital punishment be abolished? Wang said she had to consider all opinions before reaching a decision.

Abolishing the death penalty is not as simple matter, for the reasons stated above, and it will require careful consideration. For the past eight years, the government has said it would abolish capital punishment and made some headway, but because of a lack of education and information, most people still don’t understand the policy proposal.

Perhaps a key task for the incoming minister of justice would be to launch an educational effort and open a dialogue with the public on these issues.

Amnesty International reported last year that 135 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, while only 65 countries still have it. Of those, only 24 countries actually carry out executions.

Even the number of executions in China, which annually tops the list of countries using the death penalty, declined to 470 last year, compared with 1,010 executions in 2006.

The UN also passed a resolution on Dec. 28 last year demanding the worldwide abolition of the death penalty in the hope that countries that haven’t abolished it will issue a temporary moratorium while debating the matter.

Taiwan still has the death penalty on the books, but it has not been carried out for two years. But what is next?

Hopefully Taiwan will follow the global trend and stop implementing the death penalty, conduct an overall review and launch public education and dialogue to face the nation’s capital punishment system.

Lin Hsin-yi is the executive officer of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty.