Too Many Troy Davises

By Roseann Rife, Head of Special Projects for Amnesty International

People around the world and in Taiwan will be celebrating the 9th World Day against the Death Penalty on 10 October by calling on governments still using the death penalty to stop executions and join the global trend toward abolition.

Some people will be carrying on the fight in the name of Troy Davis who, in spite of worldwide campaigns and support, was executed in the United States on 21 September 2011. In a conversation with Amnesty International shortly before his death, he reminded us “the struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me.”

Taiwan’s Chiou Ho-shun may be one of these Troy Davises. Like Troy, he has spent more than 20 years on death row. Like Troy, there is also doubt in the case against him.

Troy Davis was sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail in Savannah, Georgia. The case against him primarily rested on witness testimony. Since his 1991 trial, seven of key nine witnesses recanted or changed their testimony, some alleging police coercion.

Chiou Ho-shun may not have the public profile of Troy Davis but his case is no less significant.  He and his co-defendants say that they were held incommunicado for the first four months of their detention and they were tortured to make them confess to the kidnapping and killing of Lu Cheng and the murder of Ko Hung Yu-Lan. They later retracted their confessions.

In 1994, after an official investigation, two public prosecutors and 10 police officers handling the case were convicted of extracting confessions through torture.

The death penalty is irrevocable. Taiwan knows this all too well. In February this year President Ma Ying-jeou apologized for the execution of an innocent man in 1997, former air force private Chiang Kuo-ching.

More countries realize every year that the only way to ensure mistakes like this are not made is to abolish the penalty. 139 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. Of the remaining 58 retentionist countries, only 23 executed in 2010.

In 2010 more states than ever before voted at the UN in favour of a worldwide moratorium on executions. And in 2011, in the United States, Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.

In Taiwan the four executions in 2010 and the five in 2011, stand in stark, disturbing contrast to the rising tide of world opinion in favour of abolition.

Countries that insist on using the death penalty continue to claim that they use it only in accordance with international law. But most of their actions blatantly contradict these claims.

It is often imposed after unfair trials and based on confessions extracted through torture. It is often used against political opponents, poor people, and other marginalized groups. It is sometimes even used against people who allegedly committed crimes when they were under 18 or who have significant mental impairments.

Worryingly, death sentences are handed down for acts such as fraud, sorcery, apostasy, drug-related offences or sexual relations between consenting adults, which fall far short of the legal threshold of ‘most serious’ crimes. In just the last year, death sentences were imposed for drug-related offences in China, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Yemen.

Taiwan also acts contrary to international law as it provides no procedure that would allow people under sentence of death to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence – a right recognized by International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Taiwan has legally committed to implement.

Taiwan was once considered a leader in the move to abolish the death penalty in Asia, but the recent executions are a step backwards. If Taiwan is really committed to ending executions, it should start by commuting the death sentences of all people currently threatened with execution.

The struggle for abolition does continue, in the name of Troy Davis, in the name of Chiang Kuo-ching and in the name of Chiou Ho-Shun and all others facing execution around the world.