TAIPEI, Taiwan — Most people in Taiwan have seen the image of former President Chen Shui-bian holding his handcuffed wrists above his head last November and shouting “political persecution” when he was arrested on corruption charges.
So a scene in a skit last month performed in front of more than 200 of the island’s judges and prosecutors — some involved in deciding Mr. Chen’s fate in his coming trial — came as a surprise. A prosecutor acting in the skit held her wrists together over her head and yelled, “judicial persecution.”
Legal experts here and around the world cite the skit, perceived as prosecutors mocking their prisoner, as one of several incidents that raise troubling questions about whether the rule of law is being followed in the proceedings against Mr. Chen.
His case has emerged as a difficult test of a society that has emerged as one of the freest, most vibrant democracies in Asia. A panel of judges must decide the fate of Taiwan’s single most divisive politician, Mr. Chen, who insists that he is innocent.
Mr. Chen’s case has been widely reported in mainland China, where Beijing officials reviled him for seeking greater independence for Taiwan during his eight years as president. So the unusual public discussion in Taiwan over the treatment of Mr. Chen since he left office last May could influence the evolving debate on the mainland over whether to strengthen the legal rights of individuals under criminal investigation.
“It has put criminal justice, especially criminal procedure, on the map in Taiwan, and this is something that would be wonderful to see on the mainland,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a law professor at New York University who specializes in the legal systems of Taiwan and the mainland.
The skit, performed at a Law Day party, was written by a Taipei prosecutor who has helped gather information on overseas bank accounts held by Mr. Chen’s family; family members have acknowledged wiring millions of dollars overseas in violation of Taiwan’s financial regulations, but have insisted that the money represented political contributions, not bribes. Another prosecutor, not involved in Mr. Chen’s case, performed in the skit.
“They made fun of Chen together; it’s not professional,” said Lin Feng-jeng, the executive director of the Judicial Reform Foundation, a nonprofit group in Taiwan seeking to bring the island’s law closer to international standards.
Wu Chen-huan, the vice minister of justice for administration of Taiwan’s prosecutors, said he had attended the gathering and had not immediately interpreted the raised wrists as a reference to Mr. Chen’s case. He also said the scene had been improvised by the prosecutor who acted in the skit, and had not been written by the prosecutor actually helping with Mr. Chen’s case.
The case has prompted broader concerns about Taiwan’s legal code. Its detention and criminal procedure laws were drafted in the 1930s and early ’40s by Chinese Nationalist legal scholars who mainly looked to Nazi Germany for ideas. The Nationalists lost China’s civil war to the Communists and retreated to Taiwan, which they ruled under martial law until 1987, but essentially the same laws remain on the books.
The Justice Ministry now acknowledges shortcomings in the way the island treats those under investigation. “Some treatment maybe is not following international standards,” Mr. Wu said.
When Mr. Chen was first detained, he was held incommunicado without bail at a prisonlike government detention center for more than a month. He was forbidden to speak to anyone except his lawyer on the grounds that he might otherwise arrange for the destruction of evidence.
When his lawyer, Jerry Cheng, did come to the detention center, their meetings were videotaped and two prosecutors sat in. Mr. Cheng said this had inhibited his client’s effort to develop a legal strategy.
Mr. Chen is still in detention, but under less strict rules. Family members and legislators are now allowed to visit him. Prosecutors no longer attend or record his meetings with his defense lawyer, although two guards stay in the room during these meetings and the door must stay open, Mr. Cheng said.
Mr. Wu said the Justice Ministry had reviewed Taiwan’s legal code and drafted changes for the legislature to approve. The government still wants the courts to be allowed to hold defendants incommunicado for as long as four months in complex cases. But detention centers will no longer record defendants’ conversations with their defense lawyers unless specifically directed to do so by a judge or prosecutor.
Another worry about the current prosecution of Mr. Chen is purely political: Some members of Mr. Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party warn that it is creating a precedent for the prosecution of former presidents as soon as they leave office.
President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, in an interview last week, rejected accusations that the case against Mr. Chen was politically motivated. He pointed out that prosecutors began investigating Mr. Chen and his family while Mr. Chen was still in office.
“I will do everything in my power to maintain judicial impartiality. This is vital to our democracy,” Mr. Ma said.
While President Ford pardoned former President Richard M. Nixon without a trial in 1974 after the Watergate scandal, Taiwanese law allows a pardon only after someone has been convicted of a crime.
That has led many to wonder if Mr. Chen may negotiate a deal in which he will plead guilty to some offenses in exchange for an immediate pardon. But his lawyer said that no negotiations had been held.
In the meantime, Taiwan’s prosecutors and judges have been strongly warned about any further attempts to express their thespian talents. “We asked them to avoid similar misunderstandings — if there is any opportunity for this kind of play again,” Mr. Wu said.