Tuesday was not the first time death-row inmates have been executed to serve the political interests of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration since he took office in 2008. Like the executions in 2010, 2011, 2012 and last year, the latest use of the death penalty was a manifestation of the power of the state when the authorities face a challenge from the public regarding its legitimacy.
The timing showed that the Ma administration has no intention of abolishing the death penalty, although five years have passed since it ratified two UN covenants on human rights in May 2009: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The legislature also enacted a law for their domestic application later that year.
In its defense, the Ministry of Justice said that the executions were not politically motivated and had been scheduled earlier this year, before the recent protests over the cross-strait service trade agreement and the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant.
Even so, the executions could have been rescheduled when these controversial issues grabbed the public’s attention, if it had been the Ma administration’s conviction that the death penalty should never serve as an instrument of governance.
The reasons the executions were carried out at that time are very much tied to the mentality of the Ma administration. The use of the death penalty is a tool of political control and repression.
By carrying out the death penalty, the most extreme sanction available to the state, the embattled Ma administration is trying to spread fear and intimidation among the population and deter protests. On one hand, it demonstrated the extent of state power as a warning to the public. On the other hand, it belittled the protesters and disregarded their demands.
The executions were also aimed at distracting public attention from the thorny issues the government has been struggling with and to win some sympathy from ardent supporters of the death penalty.
The government also saw the current upheaval as an opportunity to bury any bad publicity and carried out the death penalty without caution because the procedural injustice would receive far less attention from the media and the public during a time of social chaos.
People opposed to the death penalty have pointed out that all five prisoners executed had been convicted under highly questionable circumstances. Among them, brothers Tu Ming-lang (杜明郎) and Tu Ming-hsiung (杜明雄) were found guilty in a murder case in China based solely on evidence provided by China’s Public Security Bureau. The executed Liu Yen-kuo (劉炎國) was not allowed to make an extraordinary appeal to the Supreme Court for a retrial of his case by the prosecutor-general, because the position was temporarily held by an acting prosecutor-general when his lawyer filed the request with the Taiwan High Prosecutors’ Office and the office took just one hour to deny his request.
A total of 26 death-row inmates have been executed in five group executions during Ma’s presidency. The miscarriage of justice in the case of Chiang Kuo-ching (江國慶), who had his name cleared in 2011, 14 years after being wrongfully executed when he was 21 years old, did not prompt the government to consider removing the death penalty from the statute book. That the execution of six death-row inmates in December 2012 was a violation of the two UN human rights covenants, as Ma had not yet responded to their appeals for amnesty filed in March 2010, did not persuade the Ma administration to respect the stipulation that authorities must allow all legal appeals to be exhausted.