6 inmates in Taiwan prison hostage drama commit suicide; siege ends

SIX inmates at a prison in Taiwan's southern city of Kaohsiung, who were holding two prison staff hostage, killed themselves on Thursday morning, ending a 14-hour standoff.

The inmates shot themselves to death at around 5 am on Thursday, just before armed police were set to launch an overall offense action, Deputy Justice Minister Chen Ming-tang said.

The hostages, warden Chen Shih-chih and head guard Wang Shih-tsang, were both safe, Mr Chen said. This was the first such incident in Taiwan.

The inmates were apparently disgruntled about poor treatment of inmates including their NT$200 (S$8.61) monthly allowance, as well as the release of former President Chen Shui-bian on medical parole last month, United Daily News reported after interviewing the apparent ringleader of the six men through telephone.The prisoners issued a written statement late on Wednesday, saying that they would release the hostages on Thursday morning if their demands were read on television.

The drama unfolded on Wednesday as the prisoners made claims of being mistreated in prison and sought medical attention. They then found an opportunity to take an undisclosed number of prison officials hostage, Focus Taiwan news channel reported.

Warden Chen and head guard Wang then offered themselves as hostages to the inmates to secure the release of the others.

The prisoners then brought the two prison staff to the weapons cache where they stole four rifles and six handguns as well as over 200 bullets, according to deputy minister Chen. He said the inmates had fired shots into air apparently as a warning, but no one was hurt.Inmate Cheng Li-te, 46, led the uprising. The hardened criminal was said to be a senior member of the notorious United Bamboo Gang and was serving an 28-year sentence for crimes including murder. He said in the statement that he had not received a fair trial.

The rest of the gang were serving jail terms for drug-related crimes and robbery, reports said. During his interview with United Daily News on Wednesday, Cheng questioned the fairness of a judiciary system that would grant parole to Chen but not to other inmates."It's so unfair," Cheng was quoted by UDN as saying. "How come Chen Shui-bian could be released just because he has problem urinating? Other inmates who are bed-ridden or wheelchair-bound don't get the same privilege," said Cheng, who entered Kaohsiung Prison in 2012. Cheng later turned his gripes into formal demands for better allowances and a request to be released on parole during negotiations late on Wednesday with Kaohsiung city councillor Lee Mei-chen and her father.  The inmates had initially demanded that the authorities provide them with a car and that they be allowed to leave through the prison's side door, deputy minister Chen said. Large numbers of armed police wearing bullet-proof vest had entered the prison complex as the drama unfolded, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported. 

The authorities also asked the inmates' relatives to come to the prison, in hopes that they could persuade the men to not commit harm.Cheng had said in his interview with United Daily News that he and his gang had nothing to lose.

At worst I would just end up killing myself, he was quoted as saying.President Ma Ying-jeou said all jails would be on high alert while authorities reviewed management procedures to examine loopholes exposed by the incident.  However, while condemning the prisoners’ actions, he said that he “deeply regretted” that they took their lives. 

seokhwai@sph.com.sg

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE