Mr. Chen received additional sentences for money-laundering and taking bribes, and a $6 million fine. He's expected to appeal the district court's decision.
Chen's wife, former first lady Wu Shu-jen, also got a life sentence, with a 20-year sentence handed down to a key Chen aide, and lighter prison sentences for Chen's son, daughter-in-law, and others.
The case has gripped Taiwan for more than three years, becoming a public soap opera in which every move of Chen's extended family has been scrutinized and debated. But "scandal fatigue" has also set in, as the case has dragged on.
"Society isn't focused on this issue," says Hsu Yung-ming, a political analyst from Soochow University. "They care more about the future, under a new cabinet."
Chen's case began as allegations of misuse of a special fund for Taiwan's diplomacy, but then snowballed into charges involving millions of dollars moved through a complex web of shell companies and foreign bank accounts.
Some observers in Taiwan and abroad have criticized the handling of the case. Leaks to the media have been constant. A weekly tabloid correctly predicted Chen's life sentence, lending credence to complaints of loose lips in the judiciary.
Chen has also been in on-and-off detention since last November, including a month's detention without charge – treatment some see as excessive. His Democratic Progressive Party has repeatedly called for his release.
Chen himself declined to appear in court to hear his sentence. He continues to describe the case against him as a witch hunt, claiming he has been targeted by the ruling Kuomintang for his outspoken, pro-independence views.
Last August, he admitted that his wife had wired more than $20 million abroad. But he claimed the funds were leftover campaign contributions, not dirty money.
As president from 2000 to 2008, Chen constantly irked China – and the United States – with his brash trumpeting of Taiwan's independent democracy. Beijing rejects the island's claim to sovereignty, insisting Taiwan is Chinese territory that must return to the fold.
Relations between China and Taiwan have improved since May last year under the China-friendly president Ma Ying-jeou. Unlike Chen, Mr. Ma has sought to avoid offending Beijing and pursued closer cross-strait commercial ties.
Chen is now unpopular with most Taiwanese. Kuomintang supporters have long reviled him, and many of his own former supporters were dismayed by the corruption charges. They say he has sullied the party's image and set back the independence cause.
But a hard-core group turned out to protest the court decision Thursday. Some 40 police officers and rows of barbed-wire barriers kept a small group of emotional protesters at bay as the sentence was announced. They held yellow balloons and signs saying "Free Ah-bian [Chen's nickname]" and "Unfair Justice"; some scuffled with police.
Professor Hsu said that even Chen's party isn't interested in defending his innocence at this point.
"They think he did something wrong, and they don't want to get involved in the legal case," said Hsu. "They want to focus on human rights instead – their bottom line is that Chen should be released."