Taiwan Resumes Executions

Last Friday, in a move that took most observers by surprise, Taiwan's Ministry of Justice executed five men who had been convicted of multiple murders. Two were shot in the heart, the other three likely in the brain stem under the ear, since they had signed documents donating their organs.

Capital punishment had just about become a thing of the past on the island, especially because less than a month prior to the executions, President Ma Ying-jeou publicly asked for forgiveness from a woman whose innocent son had been put to death 15 years before after being tortured into falsely confessing to the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl.

Speculation is rife that the executions were a political ploy by the Kuomintang to lure back bloodthirsty voters on the eve of legislative by-elections in the southern part of the island. According to public surveys conducted between 1993 and 2008, nearly 80 percent of Taiwanese favor the death penalty. If so, the ploy didn't work. Although known for its stance against capital punishment, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party won in a landslide.

Also, what might have been a means to curry favor with domestic public opinion did not go down well internationally, particularly not with the 27 member nations of the European Union, which recently granted visa-waiver status to Taiwanese travelers. The EU, which promotes the worldwide abolition of the death penalty, issued blunt criticism of the executions.

"I have always regarded Taiwan as a positive example of democracy and the rule of law, but the worst thing emanating from the execution was that Taiwan sent a very negative signal," said Marcus Loening of the German Federal Foreign Office in a press release describing what was labeled as "a new execution wave in Taiwan".

The death penalty remains applicable to some 52 crimes in the Taiwanese criminal code, including hijacking, murder, piracy and kidnapping and robbery with rape, murder or arson. It also includes non-violent crimes such as drug trafficking, treason or military offenses.

Prior to Ma's tenure, no executions had taken place since 2005 as former President Chen Shui-bian put in place an unofficial moratorium. During Ma's three-year tenure, Taiwan has now taken the lives of nine inmates.

After the Ma administration resumed capital punishment in April 2010 by executing four criminals on a single day, the EU issued an unambiguous warning that not only the visa waiver but also its long-standing support of Taiwan's bid to join various international organizations was put into jeopardy.

Catherine Ashton, the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy of the EU and the first vice president of the European Commission, put it frankly in a prepared statement: "The resumption of executions 'acts strongly' against Taiwan's aspirations to join the UN and other international organizations."

The Taiwanese government apparently took the advice. The EU is the island's fourth largest trading partner and the destination of annually about US$20 billion worth of Taiwanese exports. No executions took place during the remainder of 2010. The EU granted Taiwanese visa-free entry on January 11. Less than a month later, the executions resumed.

"Because the overwhelming majority of the people support death penalty, the executions are a success for the KMT in general and KMT Legislator Wu Yu-sheng in particular and will help the party in the coming legislative and presidential elections," Chen Yaw-Shyang, professor of public policy at National Taipei University, told Asia Sentinel. "Like this, the KMT government can present itself as the protector of public order and security."

The KMT lawmaker, Wu Yu-sheng, is regarded as one of the death penalty's staunchest advocates amongst Taiwanese politicians. He was seen as a Ma protégé and was on the path to a first-rank political career until a sex scandal in which he was caught by paparazzi bringing his mistress into a Taipei no-tell motel delivered an all but devastating blow to his political ambitions in 2009.

It was Wu who questioned Minister of Justice Tseng Yung-fu in the legislature on capital punishment three days prior to the executions. According to local media, some members of the judiciary suspect that the cabinet, the KMT and high-ranking members of the judiciary secretly collaborated to lift Wu back into the public's good graces.

"Before the sex scandal, Mr. Wu was the KMT's political star," Chen said. "He is an important member of the Ma-clique."

However, Wang Yeh-li, chairman of the Department of Political Science of National Taiwan University, said the unexpected executions don't have a political background, although they will have a political impact, "especially on the relationship with the EU."

Also regarding Legislator Wu, the alleged beneficiary of the executions, Wang's assessment differs from that of Chen.

"Wu is very active, and is a very good orator, but I don't think he will be an important member in Ma's team in the future," Wang said.

According to Taiwan's Government Information Office, the overall violent crime rate on the island is low compared with most countries. Since the former Chen Shui-bian administration listed improving social order as a priority task for the government in March 2006, instances of crime have fallen, and the clearance rate has risen dramatically. In 2007, the number of crimes fell by 4 percent, while the clearance rate rose by nearly 8 percent. Yet, despite living in a country that is significantly safer than others, the KMT government can still expect to profit from the circumstance that to most Taiwanese, the death penalty is crucial to reduce crime.

In Legislator Wu's eyes, the Ma administration was right to ignore EU sensibilities by paying heed to what the Taiwanese public wants. "If the government does not carry out executions, it will leave a bad impression on society, and it will also not be fair for those on death row," he told local media.

Wu added that he hopes the Ministry of Justice "completes the execution of all 40 convicts remaining on death row this year."