Fri, Jun 12, 2015 - Page 8 News List

The death penalty and the loss of liberty

By Leung Man-to 梁文韜

There is one point that is often overlooked in the debate over whether the death penalty should be abolished, namely that the more people living in a country cherish freedoms, the more likely they are to oppose the use of capital punishment to deal with people guilty of committing serious crimes.

Viewed purely from the perspective of punishment, a life sentence coupled with denial of parole could actually be regarded as a more severe form of punishment than the death penalty, something which reflects the public’s understanding of liberty.

On May 14, 2009, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) signed into law two UN human rights conventions, for which it gained international approval.

However, following the resignation of minister of justice Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) in 2010, her successor, Tseng Yung-fu (曾勇夫), started implementing the death penalty again, something that was criticized by human rights groups at home and abroad.

It is easy to believe that the signing of these two human rights conventions by the Ma administration was little more than a superficial move, as the government said it would eventually put an end to the death penalty while at the same time allowing it go on.

Painted in a positive light, it could be suggested that this was the government in touch with popular opinion.

However, over the past few years, the government has been using the execution of convicts for political ends — to divert attention from major corruption scandals involving the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and from policies that do not serve the public interest — and in attempt to improve its plummeting popularity ratings

Although opposition to the abolition of the death penalty has remained consistently high — at about 70 or 80 percent of poll respondents — this ignores the findings of a more rigorous survey conducted by Academia Sinica, which suggests that if lifelong imprisonment and work during incarceration as a form of atonement were to replace the death penalty, public attitudes would soften.

The findings of that survey, conducted from last year, showed that, if this were the case, 70 percent of respondents would support this change. This demonstrates that surveys simply asking if you “support the abolition of the death penalty” are of limited worth and are perhaps misleading.

Unfortunately, having lived under a long period of martial law, unable to think freely, many Taiwanese find it difficult to understand that losing one’s life is sometimes an easier, simpler option than losing one’s liberty for their remaining days.

Many people still believe in “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as the sole option for atonement.

However, over the course of the nation’s democratization and the liberation of thought, is it possible for people to open up to more diverse options and be able to conceive of the various meanings of freedom and incorporate these into how they think about the death penalty?

Leung Man-to is a political science professor at National Cheng Kung University.

Translated by Paul Cooper

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