Thu, Jan 19, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Justice ministry on the wrong path

By Wu Chih-kuang 吳志光

A few days ago, Minister of Justice Morley Shih (施茂林) said that because there is still much debate about abolishing capital punishment, the ministry is studying the possibility of following China's system of delaying the execution of death sentences.

China's system keeps prisoners who've been sentenced to death in jail for two years to give them a chance to repent. Those who do have their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

Adopting this system, however, would be taking a step backward, instead of moving along the correct path toward eventually abolishing the death penalty.

China delays the execution of death sentences, but the death penalty remains in place. In other words, courts still have absolute power to deliver final judgment. This would not be the case if capital punishment was replaced by a full-fledged moratorium.

Delaying the execution of a death sentence does not cut down on abuse of capital punishment, nor will it reduce criticism from the outside world.

The ministry's plan to introduce China's system for commuting death sentences to life imprisonment without actually abolishing capital punishment will not stop courts from issuing the death penalty, nor does it move the nation closer to abolishing the death penalty.

Even if the ministry is determined to delay the execution of every death sentence, we feel that retaining the possibility of executing a death sentence goes against the global trend toward abolishing capital punishment.

If getting rid of the death penalty cannot be achieved in one fell swoop, a full-fledged moratorium should be implemented. That is the right step toward gradually eliminating it.

Statistics from the human-rights group Amnesty International show that by the end of last year, 86 nations had abolished the death penalty, 11 nations have abolished the death penalty in times of peace and 25 nations have stopped performing executions. In total, 122 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, while 74 nations retain and use the death penalty.

In many countries that have done away with the death penalty, abolition was preceded by a period in which use of the death penalty was halted in order to build a public consensus and come up with appropriate supporting measures. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that instituting the death penalty has an impact on social order. Comparisons between US states where the death penalty has been abolished and states that have retained it show no clear cause-and-effect relationship between social order and the existence of capital punishment.

It is very rare for a nation that has stopped performing executions to not go further and abolish the death penalty. Therefore, Amnesty International usually categorizes such nations as having abolished the death penalty in practice.

For example, Hong Kong is one of the few Chinese societies in the world without capital punishment -- Macau is another -- although it took 27 years from the time it stopped performing executions in 1966 until the death penalty was formally repealed in 1993.

Another example is Russia: Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin signed a decree stopping the use of the death penalty in 1996, and his successor, President Vladimir Putin, has continued the policy. After a decade without executions, Russia's legislative body may this year adopt Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights concerning the abolition of the death penalty in times of peace.

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