Taiwan demotes prison officials after deadly hostage crisis

TAIPEI (AFP) - Three Taiwanese prison officials have been removed from their positions over their handling of a jail standoff that saw six inmates take hostages before committing suicide, the Ministry of Justice said in a report Friday.

The warden and deputy warden of the southern Kaohsiung city prison were demoted to mid-ranking positions at the Agency of Corrections, while the head guard was reassigned to a school, the ministry said.

Inmates feigned illness to take two lower-ranking prison staff hostage, before breaking into a weapons storage room at the prison in a dramatic bid for freedom and in protest at alleged unfair trials.

"Warden Chen Shih-chih was not aware of a major incident happening in the prison for 30 long minutes, which showed his poor leadership. (He was) unable to command the system and control the situation in the prison," the ministry said.

The prisoners seized rifles and handguns and later took Chen, his deputy and the head guard captive in the February 11 incident.

They fatally shot themselves inside the prison early the next morning after a tense 14-hour standoff with police, but all hostages were unharmed, authorities said.

Contrary to the prison officials' account of events, the justice ministry said its investigation found the warden was taken hostage by inmates, rather than volunteering for a swap as he had claimed.

"Chen rushed to the scene without having a full grip on the situation, which caused him to be taken hostage and the prison to be without a leader at some point. He was reckless in his actions and was at fault," the report said.

Deputy warden Lai Chen-jung initially moved to prevent details of the incident from getting out, instructing staff to tell media enquiring about the situation that there was "a drill", the ministry's report said.

His actions "hurt the reputation of correctional facilities," it added.

Twenty other officials at the prison and the Agency of Corrections, including the agency's director, also received demerits over the incident, the ministry added.

Autopsy reports released by prosecutors Wednesday confirmed that the six had committed suicide, following intense speculation over how they died.

The medical examiners said their primary cause of death was single contact gunshot wound to the head and concluded from evidence such as muzzle imprints, gunshot residue and burn marks that each inmate had shot himself with a handgun.

The prisoners were serving sentences for crimes including murder, robbery and drugs offences.

The leader was identified by police as Cheng Li-teh, a top member of a notorious triad group known as the Bamboo Union Gang who was serving a 28-year sentence. He had complained about his "unfair" trials and about ex-president Chen Shui-bian who was paroled for medical treatment last month.