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

Article excerpt

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. …