"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A fight to the death: stopping the death penalty in Taiwan

Cheng Chieh was executed inside a jail near Taipei on May 10, 2016
Cheng Chieh was executed inside a jail near Taipei on May 10, 2016
With 80% of the population of Taiwan supporting executions, Labour MP and former director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer faces an uphill battle to sway public opinion

Executions in Taiwan traditionally involve sedated prisoners being thrust face down on a mattress and shot three times through the heart. If the condemned donate their internal organs, death is delivered by a single bullet to the back of the head.

The last execution was at 8.47pm on 10 May inside a jail near the capital, Taipei. Cheng Chieh, 23, received three shots

The crime he committed was a frenzied, mass stabbing of travellers on a metro train, inflicted with a long fruit knife, which left four commuters dead and 24 injured in 2014.

Cheng’s final appeal had been dismissed by the country’s supreme court two and a half weeks earlier. He reportedly confessed: “I had to murder people so I would be convicted for murder and given the death sentence. Only then would my miserable life end.” His mental state was the subject of intense legal dispute.

On Tuesday, Keir Starmer, the Labour MP and former director of public prosecutions, the solicitor Saul Lehrfreund, who is co-executive director of abolitionist UK charity the Death Penalty Project, and Dr Richard Latham, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, will arrive in Taipei in the hope of halting further executions.

Their ultimate aim is to persuade the newly elected Democratic Progressive party government of president Tsai Ing-wen that she should abandon capital punishment, a shift that would signal the island’s political distance from mainland China’s practice of executing thousands of prisoners a year.

The problem is that, according to the latest opinion polls, 80% of the Taiwanese population support the death penalty. The challenge does not seem to deter Starmer. “History shows us there are key moments when attitudes change, like the death penalty, or, for example, gay marriage.

“While popular opinion appears to be strongly in one direction, bold moves are taken in accordance with changing standards. You expect an outpouring of outrage but within a short time a new norm emerges.

“If you said 20 years ago that the public would accept gay marriage, you would have got a very different answer. Rarely has the death penalty been abolished by vote, but it has been restricted by legal measures, then abolished; and that’s been accepted.” Europe, he points out, is now a “death penalty-free zone” with the sole exception of Belarus.

Taiwan has 42 people on death row. Alongside the US and South Korea, it is one of only a few liberal democracies that supports judicially authorised killing of its citizens. When the present governing party was last in power, it introduced a temporary moratorium and drafted into domestic legislation the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which prevents the death sentence being imposed on pregnant women or those who committed their crimes below the age of 18.

That moratorium, however, was lifted when the government changed in 2010, leading to the execution of 33 people. The electoral victory this year of Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president, has boosted hopes of converting the country permanently to abolition.

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Source: The Guardian, Owen Bowcott, October 3, 2016

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