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May 30, 2017

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A follow-up on military justice reform (Part I)

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- In the early morning hours of July 4, 2013, a young Army conscript died of multiple organ failure caused by heatstroke in a Hsinchu military hospital.

It was a tragedy of course, but not something Taiwanese have never heard of before.

We seem to get used to the occasional news of casualties in the military. Almost every few months we would hear that a solider or two had died in an accident during drills or committed suicide.

But the death of the conscript last summer somehow came under the media spotlight and drew the public's attention.

We didn't know it back then, but the 24-year-old conscript named Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) and his tragic death would ultimately become a driving force leading to a series of reforms in the R.O.C. armed forces and the nation's court martial system.

Under the insistence of Hung's family and pressure from local media, the Army conducted a probe into the case and found major flaws that involved nearly 40 military personnel who wrongfully sent Hung to the military brig that ultimately led to his death.

The young man, originally scheduled to be discharged from the military on July 6, was forced to perform grueling exercises in hot weather before his death, the investigation revealed.

Under pressure, the military apologized over the tragedy and promised to get to the bottom of the case. However, Taiwanese people's lack of trust of the relatively conservative and opaque military only raised more questions and sparked accusations of torture.

A month after Hung's death, tens of thousands of angry protesters crowded Taipei streets as part of a massive rally to demand the truth regarding Hung's case.

The national outcry led to the resignation of a defense minister and forced the government to launch a comprehensive military judicial system overhaul.

On July 31, 2013, military prosecutors indicted a total of 18 military personnel involved in the death of Hung on charges of collectively levying punishments on the young man that were harsher than stipulated by law, recommending that the defendants be given harsh punishments for the offense.

A week later, the Legislative Yuan swiftly passed a court-martial law amendment making civilian prosecutors and courts responsible for cases involving military servicemen during peacetime, retroactively applied to this case.

With the passage of the amendment, the military handed over Hung's case to the Taoyuan District Court.

On March 7, the Taoyuan District Court handed down lenient sentences, ranging from six to eight months, to all 18 defendants involved in the high-profile case, a move that prompted outcry from Hung's family and the general public.

Both Hung's family and prosecutors said they would appeal the case to the high court.

So the battle continues.

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