Execution of innocent man sparks Taiwan debate

TAIPEI, April 13, 2011 (AFP) - In a small, sparsely-furnished apartment in the suburbs of Taipei, Chou Chang-chan's hands shake as she holds a picture of a sharply-dressed young man - her son, who was brutally murdered at age 32.

Two men were sentenced to death last year for stabbing him in an attempted burglary. If there is one thing his mother and her ailing husband hope to live to see, it is the sentences being carried out.

"We're in our eighties now. We don't know when we'll die but we're only willing to go once we've seen the execution. The government should return justice to the family," she said.

In 2010, the government reinstated the death penalty after a four-year unofficial moratorium and nine prisoners have since been executed, including five men last month.

But in a case that has reinvigorated debate, the government in January apologised for the execution of an innocent man, Chiang Kuo-Ching, who was put to death for the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl 15 years ago.

In letters to his father, Chiang always maintained that he confessed only after being tortured.

The island's Control Yuan, a watchdog that supervises other branches of government, last year ruled that evidence against Chiang was insufficient and another man with a history of abusing young girls has been arrested.

However, polls show that more than two-thirds of Taiwanese support capital punishment, believing it is a strong deterrent to violent crime.

"It relates to our traditional culture and beliefs. There's a belief in the concept of karma, that what goes around comes around," Taiwan's Justice Minister Tseng Yung-Fu said.

"The reality is, unless those who commit serious, irrational crimes are severely punished, people won't feel at ease."

Executions are carried out by a single shot in the heart from the back, or a bullet to the back of the head if the prisoner agrees to donate his organs.

Taiwan's use of capital punishment is in line with policy in many other Asian countries. China, Japan, North Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam all carried out executions last year, according to Amnesty International.

But cases like that of the innocent man, Chiang, are particularly worrying for those who oppose Taipei's resumption of executions.

European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton last year warned Taiwan that "any miscarriage of justice, which is inevitable in any legal system, is irreversible."

Some EU parliamentarians even suggested getting rid of the EU's visa-waiver policy for Taiwan citizens because of the executions.

The government has responded by saying the number of checks on death penalty cases will be increased.

Justice Minister Tseng has also assured critics that "abolition is the ultimate goal". A committee has been established to research the steps towards this, and to get a better understanding of the public's views, he told AFP. But any changes can't come soon enough for some.

"They've been talking about reform and abolition for more than ten years, but I can't see that they're being proactive," said Lin Hsin-yi, the executive director of the Taiwan Association to End the Death Penalty.

"We call on the Taiwan government to impose a new moratorium while it researches public opinion on the death penalty."

Lin's organisation has questioned the validity of polls which ask the public for a simple "yes" or "no" answer on what is a complex subject. And she rejects the idea that Taiwan's traditional beliefs are an obstacle to abolition.

"Every country has a history of using draconian laws, including the death penalty. But over time we've realised that it doesn't stop people from committing crime, and it doesn't benefit society," she said.

"You can't use culture and tradition as an excuse."

In her small apartment, Chou Chang-chan hopes her son's killers will be executed soon. A new moratorium is unthinkable to her, as is the idea of the killers serving life sentences.

"We can't keep bad people around, people would be frightened to death. If they are released, they will kill again," she said.

Taiwan has 40 prisoners on death row. The date of their executions is yet to be announced.