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.

Pichi Chuang/Reuters
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.
Jonathan Adams
Large posters of Taiwan's former President Chen Shui-bian hang next to his family's home in Hsichuang Village.
Jonathan Adams
Chen Yin visits the Hsichuang Village temple where former President Chen Shui-bian often prayed. Like many residents here, Chen Yin rejects the corruption charges against the former leader.

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

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."

Lin's group also says Taiwan should emulate Japan, which only allows holding suspects without charge for 20 days – instead of four months, as permitted in Taiwan. "Sometimes you need to lock someone up because they might flee," says Lin. "But four months is too much."

Finally, the foundation has long criticized the practice of cops recording conversations between detained suspects and their lawyers, as happened with Chen. Lin says on this front there's progress: Taiwan's top court has ruled such recordings unconstitutional.

Taiwanese resent control by those who fled China

Here in Chen's hometown, villagers also voice such concerns, flavored with a strong dash of partisanship. The village sits in Taiwan's breadbasket, a land of flat, expansive rice and sugar-cane fields, lingjiao (water caltrop) paddies, and banana trees. Older residents are often illiterate and don't speak Mandarin (they use Taiwanese, which is derived from a southern Chinese dialect).

When they talk, they lay bare the scars of Taiwan's defining communal division between Taiwanese like them, who have lived and farmed here for centuries (84 percent of the population), and Mainlanders who came to Taiwan with the Kuomintang and announced martial law in 1949 (now 14 percent).

For younger, urban Taiwanese, that communal divide is less and less significant. But for the older generation in Hsichuang, it's still very much alive. And it clearly colors their view of Chen's trial.

Many here still harbor a deep-seated grudge against the Kuomintang – returned to power last year under President Ma Ying-jeou –­ for four decades of heavy-handed policies that discriminated against native Taiwanese. They see the Chen trial as just another example of the KMT trying to keep them down.

"Mainlanders don't agree with a Taiwanese being president," says Chen Yin, inside the temple, where the former president often returned to pray. "If there's a capable Taiwanese, they'll be knocked down by the KMT. And Ah-bian's [Chen Shui-bian's nickname] capabilities were strong."

From village to law school to presidency

These villagers still take pride in Chen, the son of a tenant farmer, for working his way up from humble roots. A group of elderly men chatting across from the temple remember him as an upright boy who always had his nose in the books. Through hard study and determination, that young man went to Taiwan's top law school and eventually won the nation's highest office.

For former supporters who have now turned against him, Chen threw that all away – letting himself and his family be corrupted by power, and setting back the pro-independence cause.

But villagers here accept Chen's explanation that the money his family received was campaign and party funding.

"Here, everyone's view is that the money he took was political contributions," says Mr. Yang, an elderly villager who did not want to give his full name.

Yang says there is no proof yet that the money was for Chen himself, and not for his party or his own campaigns. And he says the business moguls who allegedly bribed Chen have gotten a pass, as Taiwan's prosecutors use their testimonies to get the former president.

Inside his living room, Mr. Hsu, who declined to give his first name, holds forth on his views that the judiciary is unfair and all politicians are crooks.

"[President] Ma is the same – they all do wrong. Why is one guilty, and one not guilty?" he says. "They're only going after [Chen's party] – it's judicial persecution."

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