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March 22 2010 | TAIWAN


Lin Hsinyi: abolition of death penalty a long and winding road, but the curent debate will be useful in the long run

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The China Post

Abolition of death penalty a long and winding road: activist

Sunday, March 21, 2010

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The campaign to abolish the death penalty has been and will be a long and winding road, but ongoing public debate on the issue is more than welcome and will be positive in the long run, a leading activist said.

"While some people say the campaign is going backwards, I'm not that pessimistic. I can't remember the last time a serious social issue like this was discussed in newspapers and on television for such a long time. More discussion is good for the campaign in the long run, " said Lin Hsinyi, executive director of Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP).

The controversial issue made headlines again in Taiwan over the past month, leading to debates in the legislature and among the public that eventually brought about the resignation of former Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng, who publicly expressed her anti-death penalty stance and pledged not to sign any execution orders during her tenure.

Lin said she respected Wang's integrity in standing by her own belief, but that her choice of words in public addresses could have been better, referring to Wang's remark that she was "willing to go to hell in the place of those death row inmates."

There are 44 death row inmates in Taiwan and no executions have been carried out since December, 2005.According to Amnesty International, there are 95 abolitionist countries in the world and Taiwan is among 58 countries that retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes -- as opposed to "exceptional crimes" such as those covered by military law or wartime crimes.

Lin said that the comment, like every time a violent crime occurs, stimulated public sentiment that in turn resulted in opinion polls showing more than 70 percent of the public are against abolition of the death penalty.

She said the controversy showed the lack of determination of most Taiwan politicians, who want to be seen as supporting human rights but disappointingly waver in face of public sentiment.

Starting in the previous administration under the now-opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan's government has voiced a long-term goal of abolishing the death penalty. The current administration of President Ma Ying-jeou incorporated a pair of United Nations covenants -- the International Covenant on Civil Rights and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights -- into domestic law last year.

"Before strong public opinion was aroused, it seemed to be a roadmap for us that would eventually lead to complete abolition, " Lin said.Although critics accuse Taiwan's Ministry of Justice of doing nothing in the past two years to promote abolition or enhance communication to reach broad public consensus, Lin disagrees, saying the ministry plans to set up a panel that envisions an ultimate goal of abolition through a step-by-step procedure.

The most important task of the panel is to identify an alternative to the death penalty and the most acceptable solution is life imprisonment, she said.

"And we have two options there -- a life sentence without parole or life imprisonment with conditional parole, which means a convict can request parole after a certain time in prison, " she said.

"We can't move forward with the issue until an alternative is decided upon," Lin said.

In addition, she said, the campaign will not be a success in Taiwan without judicial reform and improvement of criminal investigations because, in some cases, death row inmates were blamed for something they did not do or handed down sentences they did not deserve due to bureaucratic mistakes.

Meanwhile, she admitted TAEDP has also learned a lot during the recent controversy, such as not using the term "educating the public" to suggest those who support the abolition hold higher moral standards.

"We prefer to use the term 'dialogue' now to improve the campaign's communication with the public. And we also understand that this will be a long process," she said.

Social factors behind the death penalty can not be ignored either, she said. The results of a 1994 report by Taiwan's Research, Development and Evaluation Commission -- a study of more than 400 executed convicts -- showed a general profile of criminals as "blue-collar workers or jobless people between 18 and 30 years old with junior high school diplomas."

"Fifteen years after the study, I believe that the profile hasn't much changed. What does the profile suggest? There is a lot left for us to think about," she said.

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