Wed, Nov 05, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Whither the death penalty?

Yesterday, as Indonesia increased security ahead of the execution of the three Islamic militants convicted in the 2002 Bali bombings, a seminar in Taipei brought French and Taiwanese legal specialists together to discuss how Taiwan can continue its path toward abolishing capital punishment.

The carnage wrought by the terrorists behind the bombings, in which 202 people were killed, was an unspeakable crime.

It may seem difficult in this context to argue for the abolition of the death penalty, but the message at yesterday’s forum was clear: The death penalty is a violation of human rights, illegal in all cases under international law.

Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) yesterday attended the forum, which she described as her “duty.”

Wang has repeatedly stated her opposition to the death penalty. She is the third in a line of ministers of justice who have spoken out against capital punishment, making it clear that Taiwan should take the path of the majority of countries that have abolished the penalty in law or in practice.

In the case of the Bali bombers, the uselessness of the death penalty is crystal-clear: No penalty can make reparations for the massive loss of innocent lives that has and will continue to torment the family members of the victims.

Meanwhile, it is unlikely that the executions will deter similar crimes, which is one of the most often cited — and often disproved — arguments for capital punishment. On the contrary, the bombers have not repented and see themselves as martyrs, while the Indonesian government is bracing for potential retribution attacks by terrorist networks. The Australian and US embassies, meanwhile, have received bomb threats.

In this case, the death penalty serves no helpful purpose to society and may even increase the wrath of extremists who have no qualms about taking innocent lives.

At yesterday’s forum, a man stood up and told the speakers: “We want real human rights, not fake human rights.”

When a terrible crime is committed, killing the perpetrator amounts to respecting the rights of the victim, he argued.

His opinion reflects one of two main obstacles to moving public opinion in Taiwan and other retentionist countries: the belief that vengeance and justice are one and the same. In a modern justice system, however, revenge has no place.

The other barrier is the belief that the death penalty is necessary for public safety, a claim that collapses under scrutiny.

With the government repeatedly arguing that winning over public support is crucial to abolishing the death penalty, these are the deeply entrenched attitudes that Wang will have to tackle.

The experiences of countries like France, which abolished capital punishment long ago, have a definite role to play in revealing misconceptions about capital punishment.

Although it is unlikely that Taiwan will see legislation any time soon abolishing the death penalty, the Ministry of Justice can, like dozens of other retentionist countries, choose not to execute any of the prisoners on death row.

Taiwan’s last execution was in 2005. In the meantime, interested parties should take an aggressive stance on the issue, educating prosecutors and the public, tackling problems with the judicial process and challenging the assumption that an eye for an eye amounts to justice.

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