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The trials of Taiwan's Ah-Bian


The Economist
September 17, 2009

Bringing Taiwanís former president to trial is ground-breaking. A shame about the judicial flaws

A DRAMA that has transfixed Taiwan came to a head on September 11th when Chen Shui-bian, president from 2000 to 2008, was sentenced to life in jail for embezzlement, money-laundering and bribe-taking. A life sentence was also given to his crippled wife. This is not the end of the saga, for a long appeals process stretches ahead. Still, bringing a former leader to book is unprecedented for Taiwan. It is, indeed, an inspiring first in Chinese history for a toppled ruler to be punished by the law rather than the mob. So moreís the pity that the achievement is marred by flaws in the legal system that Mr Chenís trial has highlighted.

A quick reminder of the plot to date. During the ďWhite TerrorĒ of the Kuomintang (KMT) dictatorship, Wu Shu-chen, a beauty from a well-to-do family, falls for the idealism of a poor tenant-farmerís son, nicknamed Ah-Bian, who has put his precocious talents as a lawyer into the fight for justice, human rights and democracy. She pays a physical price, when one day at a rally she is hit by a farm truck that runs back and forth three times over her legs. KMT hitmen may have been responsible. She is confined for life to a wheelchair.

Ah-Bian redoubles his battle against dictatorship and corruption. Opposition efforts begin to bear fruit, and democracy comes to Taiwan. In 2000 Ah-Bian himself wins the presidency as head of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), overturning the KMTís half-century of power. He furthers Taiwaní s democratisation, always controversially, by restructuring governing institutions and shaping a Taiwanese identity that stands out from mainland Chinaís. But this lifetime fighter against corruption proves to be very corrupt by any standardsóexcept possibly the past KMTís.

It has taken three years since the first real whiff of scandal for Mr Chenís followers to face up to the scale on which their man has let them down. The DPP has felt the trauma in emotional and electoral terms. As for Mr Chenís psychology, it is a story worthy of great tragedy. Friends say that high office made a humble man arrogant. They also emphasise his familyís suffering. In franker moments Mr Chen confessed to abiding guilt over Miss Wuís disability. His wife seems to have played on this: didnít she deserve a few jewels the size of boulders? At heart, this has been Mr Chenís justification in his few expressions of public remorse, though former supporters think he has not apologised enough.

Yet, for all the revulsion with Mr Chen, the handling of his trial has also raised concerns. At best, many say, the judiciary has one foot stuck in the bad old days. At worst, it takes its orders from the KMT, now back in power.

The main worry has to do with Mr Chenís detention before and during the trial, including a month in solitary confinement. No one has properly explained why, after the presiding judge freed Mr Chen from pre-trial detention (to loud protests by KMT politicians), the judge was replaced. The new judge, Tsai Shou-hsun, promptly detained Mr Chen again. Mr Tsai happens to have presided over an earlier trial of Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT, now Mr Chenís successor as president, who was accused of abusing political funds when he was mayor of Taipei in ways that recall Mr Chenís case. But Mr Tsai acquitted Mr Ma, and gave an aide involved in the abuse a year in jail.

Mr Chenís supporters, pointing to his life sentence, and to the 20- and 16-year sentences meted out respectively to two of his aides, claim a political vendetta by the KMT, orchestrated by Mr Ma. That would hardly be in keeping with the clean-guy image of Mr Ma, a Harvard-trained lawyer. It would also throw into question how far Taiwan has really come as a law-based democracy. But it is more plausible to blame the trialís flaws on a legal system that has only imperfectly made the leap from being venal and biddable under dictatorship towards judicial independence and due process. Six years ago Taiwanís judge-prosecutors were replaced by a system in which impartial judges are meant to hear out the case for the prosecution and the defence. Mr Tsaiís open hostility to Mr Chen during the trial suggests some old-school attitudes are hard to shake off.

What is more, prosecutorsí immense powers, including the practice of interrogating an individual without letting him know what he is said to have done, remain a blot on democracy. Shameful too was the skit performed at the prosecutorsí annual dinner in which mockery was made of Mr Chen famously protesting at the humiliation of having to wear handcuffs. No rebuke came from the government. Now the justice ministry threatens to disbar Mr Chenís lawyer, Cheng Wen-lung, for questioning the fairness of the judicial process. That smacks, says Jerome Cohen, Mr Maís former law professor, now at New York University, of the persecution of human-rights lawyers in China.


What conclusions you draw about the future rule of law in Taiwan depend on whether you believe Mr Chení s trial was politically motivated or not. If notóand the investigation of Mr Chen, after all, began when he was still presidentóthen the trial of a former president is surely a landmark. What is more, the legal system is responding to the trialís shortcomings. For instance, thanks to a challenge by Mr Chen, the prosecutorsí insistence that they attend and record meetings between defendants and their counsel has now been ruled unconstitutional.

More telling, the KMT is looking anew at the whole business of murky political funds which the reforming Mr Chen should have addressed as a cancer on democracy, but instead dipped into. And most telling of all is Chinaís official reaction to the downfall of an enemy loathed for his embrace of Taiwanese independence. The reaction has been very nearly mute. After all, to cheer Taiwanís pursuit of a corrupt leader might encourage Chinaís own citizens to draw all the wrong inferences about what should happen to their own rulers.

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