TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan's justice minister has resigned after her public stance against the death penalty failed to win popular backing.

The decision by Wang Ching-feng — announced by the Cabinet late Thursday — highlights the continued support for capital punishment in Taiwan, despite the island's four-year de facto moratorium on executions.

On Wednesday, Wang said she would not issue death warrants against any of the 44 inmates now on death row.

"I would rather step down than sign any death warrant," she said. "If these convicts can have an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves, I would be very happy to be executed or even go to hell in their stead."

That statement set off a firestorm of criticism, not only among relatives of victims of violent crime, but also among members of her ruling Nationalist Party, including President Ma Ying-jeou.

"Death sentences have to be carried out according to the law," said Ma spokesman Lo Chih-chiang. "Any stay of execution has to have compelling legal reasons to be granted."

Taiwanese actress Pai Ping-ping, whose daughter was murdered by kidnappers in 1997, also lashed out at Wang's statement.

"Wang has deeply hurt Taiwanese people's feelings," she said. "She is rubbing salt into our wounds by promoting her own beliefs."

Opposition to Wang's stance was reflected in a poll taken late Wednesday by Taiwan's mass circulation United Daily News.

The telephone poll of 792 adults found 74 percent were opposed to the abolition of the death penalty and 42 percent were in favor of Wang stepping down over her position on the issue. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Despite the high level of support for the death penalty among Taiwanese, the island has not executed anyone since December 2005. Two people were executed that year, while a total of 49 people died between 2000 and 2005.

Taiwanese laws stipulate that a range of major crimes are punishable by death, including murder and kidnapping. (AP)