Rough ride for justice

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2009, 12:00am

The sentencing of Taiwan's former president, Chen Shui-bian, and his wife, Wu Shu-chen, to life imprisonment leaves a sense of lingering unease, although there is little doubt that the two were involved in serious wrongdoing. That feeling is largely a result of suspicions that the judiciary had been responding to political influence. After all, it is not enough for justice to be done; justice must be seen to be done.

For one thing, there is the issue of the prolonged detention of Chen before the trial began and how that was brought about. The former president was detained last November and Taipei District Court ordered him to be released a month after his indictment on charges of embezzlement, corruption and money laundering.

However, the Taiwan High Court ordered the Taipei District Court to reconsider its decision. A three-judge panel, headed by Judge Chou Chan-chun, then reaffirmed its decision to release Chen, and the Taiwan High Court again asked the Taipei court to reconsider.

The stand-off ended only when the judiciary, in a highly unusual move, merged the Chen case and that of his wife and placed it under a panel headed by Judge Tsai Shou-hsun, who was overseeing the case of Chen's wife. Tsai presided over Chen's third detention hearing and, after a 12-hour hearing, ordered him to remain in detention. It was the panel headed by Tsai that, last Friday, handed down life sentences for Chen and his wife.

There has been much speculation that the change in judges was made under pressure from the ruling Kuomintang.

Furthermore, the highly charged anti-Chen political atmosphere was reflected in a skit mocking Chen, on January 9. The entertainment, hosted by the Taipei Prosecutors Office and the Ministry of Justice to mark Law Day, made fun of Chen by having a prosecutor mimic Chen by raising handcuffed hands and declaring: 'Judicial persecution!'

Subsequently, Justice Minister Wang Ching-feng was quoted as saying that it was 'just a play to help everybody relax'. There appeared to be no realisation of the impropriety of the entire affair.

President Ma Ying-jeou said he could not intervene in the affairs of the judiciary. That is true where judges are concerned, but the justice minister is a political appointee. Nonetheless, despite the cabinet reshuffle last week, the justice minister was kept in office.

Following the guilty verdict and life sentences, certain legislators of the ruling KMT proposed a new law to revoke monetary benefits for former presidents once they have been convicted, before the outcome of any appeal.

The proposal to make the law retroactive makes it clear that Chen is the target. At present, a former president receives a stipend of US$245,000 in the first year, for office expenses, staff and transport.

Such behaviour has caused some observers in Taiwan and overseas to believe that the whole trial was a political, rather than judicial, exercise. It also has had the effect of polarising the population, rather than providing closure.

Under Taiwan law, life sentences are automatically appealed against and, hopefully, the second trial will be more transparent and less politicised. If the verdict is upheld by the appellate court, there can be a final appeal. The whole appeals process may take years, by which time whatever the courts decide hopefully will be accepted by the vast majority of the population.

And, at that time, Ma can decide if a pardon is justified. At present, with Chen refusing to acknowledge guilt and with the appellate process still open, it would be inappropriate for the president to offer a pardon.

Meanwhile, it should not be necessary to keep Chen in prison, although conditions will need to be imposed so that he will not be a flight risk or be able to tamper with evidence.

A second trial - and possibly even a third - will provide an opportunity for Chen to prove his innocence or win a lesser sentence and for Ma to show that Taiwan's judiciary is truly independent and not subject to pressure from the ruling party.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator