Taiwan walks fine line in murder trial

The murder case of Chinese-American writer Henry Liu has forced the Taiwanese government to walk a very fine line. The stiff sentences handed down in the murder trials Friday may have helped contain political fallout. But at the trials' end, some questions remain unanswered.

Mr. Liu was a dissident writer who was murdered in his California home last October. His killers claim he worked as a triple agent for Taipei, Peking and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. They say the killing was an act of patriotism.

On Friday a military court found Vice-Admiral Wong Hsi-ling, the former head of Taiwan's Defense Intelligence Bureau guilty as a principal accomplice in the murder, and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Two of his deputies were pronounced guilty as accessories and were given prison terms of two and one half years.

The military panel's decision came ten days after conclusion of a civilian trial in which two members of a Taiwan crime syndicate were given life sentences for carrying out the actual murder.

With these verdicts, some observers say that the Taiwan government demonstrated its willingness to deliver justice swiftly and without regard for the defendants' official status.

Taipei is anxious to limit damage to its close relations with the United States. It is also seeking to deflect continuing demands that those directly involved be returned to the US for another trial.

There have been suggestions in the US Congress that the $760 million of arms sales promised Taiwan this year could be adversely affected by Taipei's handling of the Liu case. Last week, Congress passed a non-binding resolution, calling for the extradition of some of the defendants to stand trial in the US.

But while attempting to satisfy congressional critics that it has conducted fair trials, Taipei has also been mindful that stiff sentences could demoralize its own network of security agencies.

As in the civilian trial, the military court made no effort to reconcile the conflicting testimonies of Admiral Wong and Chen Chi-li, the crime leader who was one of those convicted earlier. Wong consistently claimed that he dipatched Mr. Chen to discipline Liu, not to murder him.

But in ruling that Wong helped plan the murder, the military panel implicitly accepted Chen's explanation that he acted on the admiral's orders.

The prosecution claimed that Wong had a personal reason for wanting to kill Liu. In portraying the crime as a personal matter, many observers believe the government stopped short of a full probe into possible government involvement at higher levels.

``I see Wong as the sacrificial lamb,'' says one senior political analyst in Taipei. ``The govenrment clearly hopes to cut it [the investigation] off there.''

However the swiftly conducted trails have failed to diminish widespread suspicion that there is more to the Liu murder than has so far been revealed.

Helen Liu, the widow of the writer, has repeatedly charged that her husband's killing was politically motivated. Mrs. Liu reportedly plans to file civil court suits against the two men convicted in the civilian trial.

Also, both the civilian and military verdicts are now subject to appeals in higher courts. Some political analysts anticipate these trials will be more revealing than those just concluded. They also suggest that the life sentences announced in both trials are likely to be reduced in higher courts -- in part reflecting the government's desire not to alienate the nation's intelligence communities.

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