TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Surveys in Taiwan regularly show that a sizable majority of adults are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers. Depending upon the exact question asked, up to 80% of adults support the death penalty, according to the latest polls conducted by the Ministry of Justice in May 2008.
A serious deficiency of almost all public opinion polls, however, is that they generally ask too simple a question, that is: whether the subject is in favor of the death penalty or not. They rarely offer alternatives to execution in their polling questionnaires.
In fact, experts argue that public support for capital punishment does decline greatly when alternatives to the death penalty are considered.
Some of these alternatives are discussed in a new book, titled "New Perspectives on Abolishing the Death Penalty," sponsored by the German Institute in Taipei and Angle Publishing Co, featuring the lectures of Hans-Juergen Kerner, Uwe Meyer-Odewald, Armin Fruehauf and Gerd Delattre.
The four German experts spoke at a seminar held in November 2008 in an initiative of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty and the German Institute. The seminar was also attended by Taiwanese experts, who shared and discussed theoretical interpretations of death penalty issues and their extensive practical experiences in the field.
Together, they discussed several issues about the death penalty, including alternatives, the actual effect on crime rates and victim support, and how the German legal system can function without death penalty.
This new book further aims to provoke and instill new ways of thinking on death penalty among Taiwanese public, with the eventual aim of abolishing capital punishment on the island.
"We think that death penalty is a very cruel and inhuman punishment, and it has been proven by different studies in countries where there are capital punishments, that it doesn't withhold any perpetrator from committing a crime when he or she is aware of the fact that the death penalty exists," Pit Koehler, deputy director general of the German Institute in Taipei recently told The China Post.
"Above all, and this is the worst problem with the death penalty, it is irreversible. It cannot be undone. And we know that in every legal system, no matter how good it is, wrong decisions are made," he pointed out.
Koehler emphasized that the policy is not specifically a German initiative, but a policy that is currently being supported by 47 countries from the EU and beyond."We do not intend to position Germany as the example to follow, we merely intend to show the experiences that we have getting around with a legal system that hasn't known capital punishment for over 60 years," he said.
"We hope that the lectures – and they really are very well documented lectures – that are in the book can contribute to and broaden the discussion about this topic in Taiwan," he added.
As an alternative for capital punishment, for instance, the book suggests what is known in the German legal system as 'Sicherungsverwahrung' (a social security monitoring system) in order to ensure that the most dangerous of criminals never set foot in the society again, Koehler explained.
Currently the death penalty is still applicable in Taiwan for several offenses which include treason, murder, kidnapping and robbery with rape or arson. Death convicts are shot by a handgun in the heart, unless – oddly enough – they agree to an organ donation. In which case the shots will be fired at the head.
Still, the death penalty here is no longer mandatory, noted Koehler, meaning that the judge is not required by regulations to impose a death sentence upon conviction of the defendant.
This policy has resulted in the number of people executed in Taiwan dropping dramatically over the last 15 years.
According to figures released by Taiwan's Ministry of Justice, 32 prisoners were executed in Taiwan in 1998, down from 38 a year earlier. In 2002, this number dropped to nine and since 2006 not one prisoner sentenced to death has been executed.
In Europe, on the other hand, there has been an increasing emphasis on reconciliation projects aimed at helping the victims to overcome the fears that are often incited by a traumatic experience.
If such an aspect is neglected, the book contends that the victims would be left with their fear even if the offender is sentenced to death. In other words, keeping the perpetrator alive could contribute to the victim's recovery, the authors argue.
With the many judicial reforms currently going on in Taiwan and the extensive media coverage conducted by local media on murders and foul crimes, blowing new life into the discussion about capital punishment with broader views from Germany and Taiwan may bring about a perfect opportunity to actually reach a new kind of consensus.
You can obtain more information on "New Perspectives on Abolishing the Death Penalty" by contacting the German Institute in Taipei (http://www.taipei.diplo.de/), Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (http://www.taedp.org.tw/) or your local bookstore.