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Taiwan: Spotlight on the young democracy's judicial system

The country is struggling to handle the politically charged corruption trial of former President Chen Shui-bian.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2009

Former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian leaves for his detention trial from the Tucheng Dentention Centre in Taipei County May 7, 2009. Chen is on trial for corruption and money laundering charges.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters

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Hsichuang Village, Taiwan

After a string of corruption charges and testimony against him, most Taiwanese have concluded that former President Chen Shui-bian is guilty.

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Not in this village, though. Here, deep in Taiwan's rural south, people see Chen's trial – which opened in late March – as raw political persecution.

"I don't think he did anything wrong," says retiree Chen Yin, inside the local village temple. "If they can't prove he's guilty, they should let him go."

The stance isn't surprising. This, after all, is Chen's hometown, and sits in the heartland of support for his pro-independence party.

But a growing chorus of Taiwanese and foreign scholars are echoing – albeit in more measured tones – villagers' concerns about how the case is being handled. The criticisms have put this young democracy's judicial system in the spotlight, as it struggles to handle one of its most politically charged cases yet.

Chen – who irked Beijing and Washington with his loud trumpeting of Taiwan's autonomy – faces charges of accepting bribes, misusing state funds, and money laundering. If convicted, he could be jailed for life.

He says he's innocent. He acknowledged last year that his wife wired $21 million abroad, but said that money was leftover campaign contributions. He's been in on-and-off detention since Nov. 11, including a month without charge– a sore point for critics of Taiwan's judiciary.

Media leaks and detention without charge

Critics also object to the reassigning of Chen's case to a judge seen as less sympathetic to Chen; a skit by prosecutors mocking Chen, which they say reflected judicial bias; and persistent leaks about the case to the media. (Click here for open letters from a group of foreign scholars in November, December, and January).

The government insists it has not interfered with the case, and the justice minister and other officials have denied any political bias or influence. (Click here for the government's responses in November, January, and February.)

In a December poll conducted by Taiwan's Academia Sinica, 50 percent of Taiwanese said the island's judicial system was biased (compared with 38 percent who said it was impartial), while 59 percent said Taiwanese law did not sufficiently safeguard human rights.

At Taiwan's own Judicial Reform Foundation (a nonpartisan, independent nonprofit), executive director Lin Feng-jeng says Chen's case highlights broader problems. The most serious, he says, is loose lips.

"All the information in this case was leaked to the media – that's our biggest criticism," says Mr. Lin. "And they still haven't fixed the problem."