Taiwan sensitive to world eyes on key trial

A trial under way in Taiwan is drawing worldwide attention. Accusations of attempting to overthrow the Taiwan government have been leveled against eight activists associated with the now-banned Formosa magazine. The trial, which began March 18, has raised these questions:

1. How thoroughly does the Nationalist government intend to crack down on those challenging its rule?

2. Will the sensitivity of the Taiwan government to outside criticism of its human-rights record cause it to grant extra procedural safeguards to the accused?

So far the very length of the trial appears to demonstrate the Taiwan government's desire to avoid the appearance of running a kangaroo court. The government seems especially eager to avoid the appearance of condoning human-rights violations at a time when its rival, the mainland Chinese Communist government, has been gaining in recognition and prestige.

The eight defendants are charged in connection with a riot in the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung last December. The government charges that demonstrators led or influenced by the defendants injured some 183 security officers. The defendants claim the violence erupted accidentally when demonstrators panicked following police use of tear gas.

The incident prompted widespread arrests and a clampdown on political opposition in a move that many observers saw as a backward step in Taiwan's human-rights record.

For its part, the government accused opposition figures of communist ties or advocating a separate "independent" status for the island of Taiwan, ruled by local majority Taiwanese rather than by either the Nationalist or Communist "mainlanders."

Both Taiwan's ruling anti-Communist refugee "mainlanders" and China's ruling Communists denounce any effort to have the native Taiwanese, who are 80 percent of the population, declare the island independent of China.

But the trial so far has contradicted the expectations of some, like Linda Arrigo Shih, American wife of defendent Shih Minh Teh, general manager of the magazine Formosa.

Mrs. Shih had predicted the trial would last but a day or two.

The five-man military tribunal hearing the case has also appeared concerned about procedural safeguards. It has agreed to study defendants' allegations that their confessions were obtained by improper means, including extreme coercion, and by threats to themselves or families.

Taiwan's supporters say all this shows the Nationalist government is indeed committed to the rule of law. Skeptics say it reflects Taiwan's sensitivity to the large amount of international attention focused on the case.

After being expelled from Taiwan earlier this year, Mrs. Shih toured the United States, raising money and lobbying for support and publicity from government officials and the press. And a report by the London-based human-rights group Amnesty International released during the trial accused the Nationalist government of ill-treating and torturing prisoners to extract confessions. The Taiwan garrison command called the charges "irresponsible and laughable."

While the charges could theoretically bring the death penalty, the government has indicated it will not seek the extreme penalty.

Prosecutors have accused the defendants of advocating the use of violence and of buying clubs and bamboo sticks. Yao-chia Wen, "Formosa" legal adviser, and Shih Ming Teh, have denied this, saying instead their approach was "violent brinksmanship" or "walking on the edge of violence" to cower authorities into agreeing to allow opposition activities.

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