A few days ago groups opposing the abolition of capital punishment and groups advocating conditional abolition appeared at a public hearing on the status of the death penalty in Taiwan. Fortunately, the meeting was peaceful, and I have a few suggestions for pro-abolitionists.
I used to support the idea of conditional abolition, but find the ongoing dispute unacceptable because some pro-abolitionists constantly raise the issue of human rights and claim the moral high ground. In the process they demonize family members of victims and opponents of abolition by painting them as merciless monsters. If pro-abolitionists claim on the one hand that the death penalty is an expression of state violence and suppression while on the other hand take a superior attitude, use complicated language and refer to human rights to suppress dissent, then they are mere hypocrites.
Some positions and statements may be suitable for religious people, but these positions do not represent an attitude that should apply to legal professionals and academics in the legal field. These groups should propose substantive measures and evidence to prove that Taiwan must, and can, abolish all articles relevant to capital punishment from the Criminal Code. If they keep reiterating their personal beliefs they will not fulfill their responsibilities on this issue.
Taiwan could defer death sentences or institute a moratorium because there are concerns that some of the 44 convicts currently on death row have been wrongfully sentenced due to past flaws in the appeals system. However, there is no absolute relationship between this situation and questions of whether Taiwan should immediately abolish capital punishment, whether the credibility of the judicial system will improve once capital punishment has been abolished, or whether abolition is necessary to prove that we think human rights are important.
Wrongful sentencing can also occur in cases of life imprisonment or fixed-term sentences. Thus, focusing only on wrongful death sentences is yet another injustice. Pro-abolition groups also know that some African and Asian countries that have abolished capital punishment have done so not because of their advanced human rights record but because their legal systems are so poor that they fear persecution by a totalitarian state. An example of this is Hong Kong, which abolished capital punishment before its return to China.
The key to legal human rights is judicial credibility. Improving judicial credibility does not depend on all-out attacks on prosecutors and judges alone. Anyone connected to the judicial system, including lawyers and academics, must review their behavior.
Many pro-abolition groups are led by lawyers and academics. These lawyers could spend some time improving the quality and discipline of their fellow lawyers. Academics could bring more expertise to the field of legal studies and bring it in line with reality. That would raise the quality of the judiciary.
Dialogue must be based on equality. If pro-abolitionists only want to use the current dispute to sensationalize the death penalty but have no intention of actually making a substantial effort toward abolishing it, then fine, they will reach their goal. If they really want to build a common understanding for the fundamental reform of Taiwan’s judiciary and resolve the death penalty issue once and for all, then pro-abolition organizations must start reviewing their own attitudes and think about where they went wrong.
Carol Lin is an assistant professor in the graduate institute of technology law at National Chiao Tung University.
TRANSLATED BY PERRY SVENSSON
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