Taiwan dissident verdict signals possible era of political reforms

The sentencing of eight Taiwan dissidents by a military court raises the question of whether the government of President Chiang Ching-Kuo will speed or slow the pace of political reforms.

There were few surprises in the April 18 court verdicts affecting eight defendants accused of sedition and advocacy of violence in connection with December 1979 riots in the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung.

But some observers saw the nine-day trial as unusually open and long, and conducted with more due process than in the past. Still unclear was just how much of this might be a public-relations ploy to disarm human-rights critics and how much might be a harbinger of liberalization.

The stiffest sentence went to Shih Ming-teh, general manager of the banned political magazine Formosa.

Already convicted on earlier sedition charges, he received the mandatory life-imprisonment term for a second offense.

Seven others, all senior staffers of the magazine, received sentences ranging from 12 to 14 years. Formosa publisher Huang Hsin-chieh, also a member of the national legislature, received 14 years.

In its verdict, the Taiwan garrison military court said the eight "committed an overt act with intent to overthrow the government by illegal means." It said the magazine was used as a cover to organize illegal rallies and parades, and accused the defendants of responsibility for the December violence that authorities said injured 813 security men.

The defendants, who denied planning any violent action against the government , blamed it on the demonstrators' panic reaction to a police crackdown.

The verdict leaves the government firmly in control. Earlier, authorities had moved rapidly to close down dissident magazines, including the Magazine of the Eighties, closed four months ago, and Asian Magazine, closed last month.

The arrests and clampdown sharply undermined the growing boldness Taiwanese dissidents have shown through stepped-up organizing, staging of mass rallies, and the reading and printing of dissident magazines.

Many dissidents increasingly demanded more democracy in choosing their country's future.

Some observers believe the government felt impelled to act because the dissidents had reached the point of using violence and because of the political threat they posed to the ruling Nationalist Party.

But now that the government appears to have eliminated escalating organized opposition, it could either sit tight or, at the very least, make symbolic reforms.

One government critic, Kiang Chun-nan, publisher of both the Magazine of the Eighties and the Asian Magazine, reportedly suggested that resentment among the followers and relatives of those convicted -- followers who may now run for office themselves -- could jar the government into speeding up political reforms.

Reforms, he said, might include replacing the more than 200 parliament members elected before the nationalists were driven to Taiwan in 1949.

"I believe the ruling nationalists just may do that because in the past, whenever they cracked on the opposition, they often followed up with some reforms in the political system," he is quoted as saying.

A noted independent legal expert, Prof. Huang Yuehchin, also is said to have expressed hope the trial will lead to political reforms.

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