Chen case a tragedy for Taiwanese democracy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am

The indictment of former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian on charges of corruption in office is not surprising, given the evidence that has emerged against him. But the laying of serious charges against such a prominent public figure represents a troubling new low for Taiwan's politics. It will further weaken public trust in democratic institutions shaken by wrongdoing in high places, and exacerbate public division over his successor's policy of closer relations with the mainland. Both will take a long time to heal.

First, Chen has to stand trial. Prosecutors have already begun clamouring for the maximum sentence, as if a guilty verdict is a formality. For the sake of the island's future social and political stability, it is to be hoped that he is seen to have a fair trial. Chen has already been kept in detention for a month while investigators gathered evidence. Some that has emerged leaves little doubt in many minds that he is culpable. But there remain supporters who will never be convinced that the investigation has been impartial. The presumption of innocence and the chance to defend himself in open court is therefore important.

The island is deeply divided over relations with the mainland. Chen has exploited this to his advantage, claiming that the allegations against him are politically motivated. To supporters of independence, and opponents of closer relations with the mainland, Chen's support for their cause matters more than any alleged wrongdoing.

It is a tragedy for Taiwan's young democracy that things should have come to this. He was elected as a leader of some stature, one who was seen to embody the hopes of Taiwanese with strong feelings of local identity. Indeed, it was on the back of their support that he became president. If he is guilty as charged, he will have betrayed their faith by using his position for personal gain. It will be an egregious example of the adage that power corrupts. Chen's wife Wu Shu-chen, son, daughter-in-law and 10 others have been indicted along with him on charges of corruption, money laundering, embezzlement and document forgery.

From a human rights perspective the Taiwanese justice system leaves a lot to be desired. Chen's detention prior to his being charged is one example. There has also been criticism of the arrests and detention of other former government officials from the Democratic Progressive Party, while prosecutors leaked detrimental information that led to 'trial by media'. There is a legislative basis for courts to order the detention of suspects incommunicado for up to four months of investigation before indictment to guard against falsification of evidence. But it creates obvious difficulties in preparing a defence and raises questions of fairness. It should be used very rarely. Given that Chen until recently held the island's highest office and the sensitive nature of this case, it is regrettable that he was held for so long in such circumstances.

Claims persist that prosecutions for official corruption both under Chen's administration and that of his successor, Ma Ying-jeou, have been politically motivated. Sectors of Taiwanese society remain suspicious of court decisions and the impartiality of some judges, although the judiciary has asserted its independence since pre-democracy days. The world will be watching the proceedings against Chen. It is a chance for Taiwan to show it really does have an independent judiciary by ensuring impartiality and transparency, so that justice is done.