In Taiwan, human rights and justice reform on trial

A high-profile criminal case that's back in court this month tests the island's developing democracy.

Nearly a decade after their arrest, the unprecedented retrial of three death row murderers here has not only been a chance for the "Hsichih trio" to prove their innocence, but an opportunity to address judicial reform, police brutality, and the standards of human rights in Taiwan.

After years of appeals on the trio's behalf by the prosecutor general's office, and lobbying by legal scholars, businessmen, lawmakers, and human rights groups, the courtroom for the high-profile case has been bursting with activity at two hearings over the past two weeks. In addition to those actually involved with the case, students and individuals who feel they've been slighted by the hands of justice pack the courtroom to listen or to let their voices be heard. One woman grabs any reporter she can to divulge a pocketbook full of documents and a tale of how her sibling was slighted in court. An elderly man in fishing cap and khakis passes out fliers. "Whatever you do, don't play around with these lives just to save face for powerful judges," the page reads.

The case has already become something more than a proceeding that could end the lives of three men who say their confessions to the 1991 crimes of double murder, rape, and robbery in the city of Hsichih were brutally tortured out of them. The case is also about Taiwan and its efforts to reform both in the courts as well as politically, socially, and culturally.

"We're still a young democracy,"says Albert Tsai, a justice ministry prosecutor, where the evolving standard of the rule of law is an extension of Taiwan's authoritarian past.

Since President Chen Shui-bian was elected in March, ending more than 50 years of rule by the Nationalists, or Kuomintang (KMT), his government has set up a commission on human rights, stated that the death penalty should be abolished, and worked to promote other activities - albeit more symbolic in nature - like "human rights marriages" to give birth to "human rights babies."

But during the martial-law era, which ended in 1987, law and order was directed more than practiced. Individuals could disappear without anyone ever knowing or being told where they had gone.

Some of the judges who sat on the court then are still around, and their influence has spilled over into the period of democratization, says the Rev. Edmund Ryden, director of the John Paul II Peace Institute at Taiwan's Fujen University. As his law students have researched the case of Su Chien-ho, one of the trio, they have found that the "judges are more concerned with honor and prestige than whether they [the Hsichih trio] were guilty or not," says Fr. Ryden. "The mentality of the KMT is still around, where you do what people up top want you to do."

Even before the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1911, court culture meant that it was not uncommon for judges in China to torture suspects until they confessed, says Brian Kennedy, a former US prosecutor who teaches criminal justice in Taiwan. The island inherited much of that culture when the KMT came to Taiwan after being defeated in China by the Communists. In general, the public has an aversion to courts and anything associated with the justice system, he adds. Courts are typically perceived of as being a place where "bad people" go.

Other critics say that aside from the cultural factor, police brutality is somewhat related to their limited powers of investigation, and their relatively low salaries (on average US $1,900 a month). In Taiwan, prosecutors are given more authority when it comes to investigation work, and police are left to determine whether a suspect is guilty or not based only on the evidence that they may have when a suspect is detained or that is gathered through questioning.

While laws were amended recently to reduce the time an individual could be detained from 48 hours to 24 hours, problems still occur. Earlier this year, under the heat of intense media attention, four young men were arrested for robbery. Because the robbery involved a residence owned by the head of a leading local insurance firm, police went out of their way to close the case as quickly as possible. While it was never proved that brutality was used against the four teens, all of them confessed to the crime after interrogation. Later, however, DNA tests of evidence found at the crime scene did not match and the four were released. Officers involved in the case were given demerits.

The role of media has also affected the Hsichih trio's case. During the retrial, the court has gone a step further, allowing a closed-circuit television to broadcast the retrial outside of the courtroom. Typically cameras are only allowed to peer into courts here between the cracks of doors as they open and close. While camera angles and the drama in the courtroom are a far cry from "Ally McBeal," the public is able to see portions of a trial from the inside for the very first time.

But such pressure, while useful, can also backfire. Especially when the island's abundance of 24-hour cable news stations and their scores of satellite broadcasting trucks are on a hot crime case. In many other countries, the press line ends at the door to the police precinct or far outside the prosecutor's office. But in Taiwan, television stations frequently ram into police stations filming suspects being questioned and blare the faces of suspects and names over cable broadcasts even before a trial has taken place. With such a direct link into the police precinct, in the public's eye many are guilty until proven innocent. "It will still take some time here for the idea that you're innocent until proven guilty to sink in," Ryden says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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