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Constitutional court set to debate death penalty

04/22/2024 09:05 PM
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The Constitutional Court in session. CNA file photo for illustrative purpose only
The Constitutional Court in session. CNA file photo for illustrative purpose only

Taipei, April 22 (CNA) Taiwan's constitutional court will convene a highly anticipated debate on Tuesday about whether the current death penalty system is constitutional, addressing an issue that has been contentious in Taiwan for decades.

The debate, scheduled for Tuesday, will see attorneys Nigel Li (李念祖) and Jeffrey Li (李劍非) representing 37 prisoners currently on death row and challenging the constitutionality of capital punishment.

The 37 petitioners have argued that "the presence and implementation of capital punishment violate Article 15 of the Constitution of the Republic of China," which stipulates that "the right of existence...shall be guaranteed to the people."

Kuo Yung-fa (郭永發), head of the the Ministry of Justice's (MOJ) Department of Prosecutorial Affairs, will lead a team of three to defend the current practice.

Other areas of contention include the availability of alternative sanctions if the death penalty is deemed unconstitutional and whether further limitations should be imposed on its application if the current system is upheld as constitutional.

Kuo Yung-fa, head of the the Ministry of Justice's Department of Prosecutorial Affairs. CNA file photo
Kuo Yung-fa, head of the the Ministry of Justice's Department of Prosecutorial Affairs. CNA file photo

The case, initiated by Wang Hsin-fu (王信福), a 71-year-old man sentenced to death for his involvement in the killings of two police officers in 1990, was brought to the constitutional court in 2022.

The court later decided to combine Wang's case and those of 36 other death row convicts.

Three grand justices have requested recusal, and therefore the remaining 12 are expected to review the case and make a judgement three months after the debate at the earliest.

Two have taken part in the reviews of cases in which two of the petitioners were sentenced to death, and one used to work for an NGO advocating for the abolition of the death penalty.

According to the Constitutional Court Procedure Act, a majority of the justices presiding over the case would have to rule in favor of the petitioners for the death penalty to be overturned.

The constitutional court has previously touched on the constitutionality of the death penalty on three occasions, in 1985, 1990 and 1999.

On those three occasions, it deemed constitutional court rulings sentencing to death individuals found guilty of drug dealing and kidnapping for the purpose of extorting ransom.

A vehicle carrying the remain of Weng Jen-hsien leaves the Taipei Detention Center in New Taipei, after the death row inmate was executed on April 1, 2020. Weng was convicted in 2019 for setting his home on fire and causing six deaths. CNA file photo
A vehicle carrying the remain of Weng Jen-hsien leaves the Taipei Detention Center in New Taipei, after the death row inmate was executed on April 1, 2020. Weng was convicted in 2019 for setting his home on fire and causing six deaths. CNA file photo

The petitioners are arguing, however, that those interpretations were "not keeping up with the times" because they were issued before Taiwan made the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which calls for restrictions on the death penalty, a matter of domestic law in 2009.

In addition to the petitioners' attorneys and the MOJ officials, a representative from the National Human Rights Commission under the Control Yuan, which has expressed support for the abolition of capital punishment, and several scholars will also take part in the debate and share their viewpoints.

Lin Hsin-yi (林欣怡), executive director of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), described the constitutional review as a "showdown" after a decades-long failure to take decisive action by the executive and legislative branches to address the issue and communicate effectively with the public.

Lin said she was keenly aware of public opinion on abolishing capital punishment as well the frequent manipulation of the issue by politicians who seek short-term gains in elections.

Surveys conducted by the Crime Research Center of the National Chung Cheng University over the past decade have consistently indicated that more than 75 percent of Taiwanese support the retention of the death penalty.

KMT lawmakers hold a news conference in Taipei on Friday, suggesting the death penalty issue is not within the Constitutional Court's purview. CNA photo April 19, 2024
KMT lawmakers hold a news conference in Taipei on Friday, suggesting the death penalty issue is not within the Constitutional Court's purview. CNA photo April 19, 2024

Acting as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) for the case, the main opposition Kuomintang's (KMT) legislative caucus has filed an opinion with the constitutional court to express a stance of opposition to the abolition of the death penalty.

In the document, the KMT caucus also argued that the abolition of the death penalty falls within the discretion of the Legislative Yuan and as such the constitutional court should not seek to determine the matter by passing a judgement.

Meanwhile, ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislative caucus whip Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘) said last week that the abolition of the death penalty remained a "long-term goal" but noted that more dialogue is needed within society.

"Only when a consensus is reached in Taiwanese society can we move onto the next stage," he said on social media.

"Politicians have consistently prioritized political considerations over human rights values," Lin of the TAEDP told CNA, alluding to those who either trumpet the practice of capital punishment or sidestep the issue for fear of jeopardizing their political careers, without naming names.

Grand justices ought to swim against the tide of public opinion and political pressure and make a judgment "based on their principles and professionalism," Lin contending, arguing that they should serve "the role of human rights defenders."

Lawyer Lee Chen-pu (李巾幞) said there was no longer "mandatory capital punishment" in Taiwan but there remained about 50 provisions allowing for the death penalty.

If the constitutional court rules the death penalty unconstitutional, Lee said, judges in the future may consider sentencing those guilty of the most serious offenses to life without the possibility of parole in order "not to go against public sentiment."

(By Teng Pei-ju, Lin Chang-shun and Hsieh Hsing-en)

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