President Chen immune from criminal probe

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

In the latest twist to a scandal over secret state funds, Taiwan's Council of Grand Justices has ruled it was unconstitutional for prosecutors to question President Chen Shui-bian over any criminal case, because he enjoys immunity.

The ruling handed down yesterday by the council, which interprets the constitution, came as a relief to Mr Chen, who had said he would resign if his wife, Wu Shu-chen, was convicted of corruption.

Ms Wu is on trial for embezzling around NT$14 million (HK$3.3 million) in secret state funds from the Presidential Office by using receipts provided by others to cover spending claims.

Constitutional scholars yesterday said, with the latest ruling, Mr Chen's wife was likely to be acquitted because any evidence would be considered illegally collected.

Prosecutors indicted her in November and said they had evidence to bring similar charges against Mr Chen, but delayed doing so because of his immunity.

But yesterday the council said the president was protected by the constitution and enjoyed immunity - protection that even he did not have the power to abandon.

'Except for sedition and treason, if the president is involved in any criminal cases he should not be questioned or investigated as a suspect or defendant as long as he is in office,' council spokesman Fan Kuang-chun said.

Mr Fan said that, under the constitution, there was also no need for the president to provide any proof that certain funds he used were for secret diplomatic purposes.

The ruling was welcomed by the office of Mr Chen, who has been under pressure to step down since last year over a series of corruption scandals, implicating him, his family and his government. To ease the pressure, Mr Chen said he would resign if his wife was convicted in the first trial.

'The Presidential Office respects the ruling by the Council of Grand Justices and expresses its appreciation,' Mr Chen's office said. 'In future, all legal proceedings should be in line with the ruling.'

The office stopped short of saying whether the president wanted the court to stop the trial of his wife, who has not been seen in public since she was indicted.

Ms Wu, paralysed from the waist down, has only been seen once at the trial and called in sick for later sessions, saying she was too feeble. She fainted during the first hearing.

Her lawyers said the court should never have held the trial because, under the constitution, prosecutors could not use Mr Chen's testimony as evidence.

Prosecutors said they had obtained permission from Mr Chen to 'interview' him about the purpose of the funding claims.