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Taiwanese Justice on Trial Over Death Row Inmates

June 29, 1996

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) _ When three young Taiwanese men were sentenced to die for robbery, rape and murder in February 1992, it was treated as an open-and-shut case.

More than four years later, it is a cause celebre. The three are still on death row, and Taiwan has completed a transformation to democracy, shifting the political climate around the case.

Now no one is above public scrutiny, including the judges who condemned the three to the firing squad. And allegations the three were tortured have spurred further public criticism.

A justice minister has refused to sign the death warrants for Su Chien-ho, Liu Pin-lang and Chuang Lin-hsiun, and a state prosecutor has asked the Supreme Court three times to overturn the verdict. Some 200,000 people have signed a petition.

Legal experts and human rights groups say the convictions were based mainly on confessions extracted under police torture. The Supreme Court disagrees, but has been forced into the rare step of publishing a 40,000-word defense of the verdicts.

``We need a revamping of the system,″ says Huang Lo-pei of the Taiwan Human Rights Promotion Association. ``Our prosecutors and judges, victims of the long period of martial law, tend to follow the police accounts without making their own judgments.″

Su, Liu and Huang were 18 and just graduating from high school when they were arrested for the March 1991 murder of a couple in suburban Taipei.

A marine named Wang Wen-hsiao had already been convicted by a military court on the basis of a bloody fingerprint he left at the house. Before he was executed, he implicated the three youths.

Police searched Chuang’s home and found 24 Taiwan dollars, worth less than one U.S. dollar, which they concluded was part of the robbery loot.

The three confessed to robbing the couple and murdering them with a kitchen knife after raping the wife. But later they said they were tortured into confessing.

The policemen were cleared of the torture charges on the grounds that the suspects’ wounds were old or did not match the torture they described.

Defense attorneys argued that no fingerprints or any other clues pointed to the three having been in the house. They said police only assumed their involvement because the 79 stab wounds inflicted on the couple could not have been one man’s work.

Sixteen months ago the Supreme Court upheld the ruling. President Lee Teng-hui has the power to pardon the three or commute their sentence, but says he will not interfere in the judicial process.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued a statement pointing out that the case had been through 40 judges, that the evidence was solid, the confessions were genuine and the verdict correct.

The number of executions in Taiwan has fallen steadily, from 78 in 1990 to 16 last year, in part because capital offenses used to be tried under military law but are now handled by civilian courts and require the justice minister to sign the death warrant.

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