Process exists for special pardon of death row inmates: minister

Taipei, Jan. 9 (CNA) Justice Minister Tseng Yung-fu said Wednesday that a system is in place in Taiwan to handle special pardons for death row inmates, amid questions over whether the issue was properly addressed before the execution of six people on Dec. 21. Briefing a legislative committee on human rights issues, Tseng said that when a death row inmate requests a special pardon, it is sent to the Presidential Office. If the special pardon is then granted, the office notifies the ministry to take the necessary action, Tseng told lawmakers. The ministry has not received any notification of a special pardon since resuming executions in 2010, however, and it had to execute six death row inmates last month according to the law, Tseng said. Opposition Democratic Progressive Party legislators Tuan Yi-kang and Yu Mei-nu said that under two United Nations human rights covenants, enacted by Taiwan in 2009, death row inmates have the right to ask for a special pardon or a commutation of their sentence. Some of the six convicted inmates executed on Dec. 21 asked the Presidential Office for a special pardon in 2010 but were shot anyway, without knowing if their request had been granted, the legislators said while questioning Tseng on the policy. Citing the ministry as saying that the Pardon Act has no guidelines on procedures for rejecting a special pardon request, the DPP legislators proposed that the Executive Yuan study a revision of the law and that the Justice Ministry submit a report on the issue within a year. The executions drew international condemnation and cast a broader spotlight on Taiwan's human rights practices, which the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou considers to be one of its top priorities. Though Taiwan has been kept out of the United Nations by China, it still passed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights into law in 2009. Last year, it published a report assessing how well it has implemented the covenants and has invited international human rights observers to visit Taiwan in February to evaluate the report. After Wednesday's hearing, Tseng was also asked about the fate of the 55 inmates still on death row in the wake of the condemnation of the executions in December. The justice minister said no timetable was in place to carry out their sentences but also hinted that there was no plan to put an unofficial moratorium on executions as requested by international human rights groups. "We continue to review the cases of death row inmates. We have no timetable, and we will take action after completing the review," he said. He also confirmed that nine international human rights experts will visit Taiwan as scheduled to review Taiwan's first human rights report. There had been concerns that the human rights observers might not visit the country after the December executions. Tseng said he wrote to the experts the day after the convicts were put to death, explaining that the ministry carried them out in accordance with the law and that capital punishment still has strong popular support in Taiwan. They accepted the explanation and said they would visit Taiwan as scheduled, Tseng said. (By Kelven Huang and Lilian Wu)