The New Minister of Justice Should Tell Us Whether He Intends to Abolish the Death Penalty
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 16, 2010
Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng has resigned in response to the controversies over the death penalty and the prison break at the Taipei Detention Center. What position will the next Minister of Justice adopt regarding prison policy? Here are some major issues her successor must consider.
First of all, will he or she adopt a different position regarding the abolition of the death penalty? Yesterday President Ma noted that abolishing the death penalty and carrying out executions are two entirely different issues. On the surface, Minister Wang erred because she refused to carry out the death penalty, even though the law has yet to be amended. At a deeper level however, people favor harsh penalties during troubled times. They like the idea of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. They simply do not understand why the death penalty should be abolished. That is the real reason Wang Ching-feng was forced to resign.
Why do so many countries the world over hope to abolish the death penalty? Do they care only about the rights of bad people and not the good? The Republic of China has undergone two changes in ruling parties. Abolishing the death penalty would surely meet with international approval. But the public on Taiwan is convinced the death penalty helps keep their community safe. Will newly appointed ministers reverse the policy of abolishing the death penalty? Or will they explain why the government should abolish the death penalty, and communicate their reasoning to the public?
Will the new ministers immediately sign 44 execution orders? Will they carry out all the executions at one time? Will they carry them out in batches? Or will they exercise their discretionary powers in deciding how to act? President Ma says he intends to govern in accordance with the law. Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng immediately stepped down. In fact however, she failed to make her position clear. She left people with the impression she was reluctant to govern in accordance with the law. Of course she should resign. As we all know, the law authorizes the minister to order executions. If something is a law, it must be carried out. If something is not a law, it must not be carried out. Only then is one governing in accordance with the rule of law. Carrying out something that is not a law, is not governing in accordance with the rule of law.
The Republic of China will incorporate two human rights conventions into its domestic legal system. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that those sentenced to death have the right to request commutation of their sentences. Death row inmaters hae already submitted applications. Carrying out the law at this moment would violate the protocol for the reduction of sentences. If the minister hastily orders these executions, does that still constitute governing in accordance with the rule of law? The Grand Justices have offered two constitutional interpretations of the death penalty. One of them was during the martial law era. The legal reasoning was so backward as to be shameful. In fact, one execution being ruled constitutional does not make all executions constitutional. The Republic of China has already incorporated human rights conventions into its domestic law. Death-row inmates have already petitioned for a constitutional review of the death penalty, in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution in the 21st Century. According to existing regulations, inmates awaiting retrial or who have filed appeals may not be executed. If the minister fails to wait for the constitutional interpretation before carrying out executions, then he has failed to "govern in accordance with the rule of law." How can a minister committed to the abolition of capital punishment, hastily impose the death penalty?
Minister Wang's resignation shows that the Ministry of Justice failed to communicate with the public. It failed to convince the public that the abolition of the death penalty has nothing to do with the preservation of law and order. It also failed to care for and protect crime victims. When the government brings a criminal to justice, that is a form of condemnation. But mere condemnation is not enough. It must also help victims to escape victimhood and get on with their lives. No one has the right to demand that victims forgive their victimizers. But the government can help victims forsake the notion of revenge. This is one way to help victims of crime. Has the Ministry of Justice done enough in this respect?
Some say that if criminals commit crimes, why must the government rehabilitate them? Actually this is open to debate. The government need not compensate the victim on behalf of the victimizer. But it can help the victims to obtain restitution from victimizers. We are not advocating debt collection by means of physical coercion. But prosecuting criminals is a far cry from helping crime victims receive restitution. This should be considered a form of protection for crime victims. Government assistance to victims no longer able to support themselves as a result of crime, must not be considered restitution by those who committed the crime. That would mean valuing money more than the crime victim's distress. The government should also provide psychological counseling to help crime victims survive their ordeal, to put their suffering behind them, and begin life anew. Only then can crime victims forsake the notion of revenge. Most worrisome of all are government officials who would rally support for the government's crime fighting efforts by encouraging victims to hate their victimizers. These officials refuse crime victims resources that would enable them to put their suffering behind them.
Resource allocation has much to do with the penal system as a whole. Yesterday's escapee was a convicted inmate. The person left in the Detention Center was merely a suspect who had yet to be tried. Why was a convict placed in the same facility as a suspect? Why was the detention center being used as a prison? Failing to distinguish between detention and imprisonment is also a violation of of the provisions of the Human Rights Convention. Inadequate resources is no excuse to violate the basic principles of prison administration. This is the harsh reality the new Minister of Justice must confront and address.
If the new Minister of Justice has the courage to face up to his policy problems, if he does what he should, and refrains from doing what he shouldn't, the price we paid as a result of Minister of Justice Wang's resignation may be worth it.