Verdict in corporal's death yet another blow to Ma Ying-jeou

Light sentences rekindle anger with government and its failure to satisfy to public expectations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 4:58am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 4:58am

The relatively light sentences against 13 military officers over their roles in the high-profile death of a detained army corporal have triggered public outrage in Taiwan as expected.

On Friday, 13 of 18 defendants implicated in the death of Hung Chung-chiu were handed jail sentences of between three to eight months. The ruling angered Hung's family and rights groups on the island, and drove deeper the wedge between the public and the administration of the island's president, Ma Ying-jeou.

Hung, 24, died of multiple organ failure on July 4 after being forced to undergo solitary confinement and consecutive days of drills at a military detention centre. Hung's superiors claimed that he had violated military rules by bringing a camera-equipped mobile phone on base.

But initial findings by the Defence Ministry showed Hung should have been given only administrative punishment - not military detention - for the violation.

Even if detention was justified, he should not have been forced to perform physical drills in the severe heat and humidity, according to the ministry.

Perhaps Taiwanese authorities should consider adopting the jury system

His death immediately drew wide public attention followed by a series of protests. Hung's family came forward to accuse the military of punishing him in a manner that resulted in his death.

On August 3, more than 200,000 people took part in a demonstration organised by civil group Citizen 1985 outside the Presidential Office, demanding justice over Hung's death and changes to the military's disciplinary system.

Ma's Kuomintang-dominated legislature quickly approved to replace courts martial with the civilian justice system during times of peace.

The overhauls offered Ma the chance to repair his administration's public image. But the president's popularity remained in a slump, dipping to 9 per cent at one point, as voters continued to blame him for the stagnant and a series of other scandals.

Last week's ruling by the Taoyuan District Court has reignited smouldering anger. The 13 officers were found guilty of either abusing their power or involuntary manslaughter. They were handed between three to eight months in prison, but six of the defendants were able to convert their jail time to a fine of NT$1,000 (HK$256) per day.

"The heaviest sentence is just eight months. How cheap can a life be?" Hung's mother, Hu Su-chen, shouted after hearing the verdict. The family has decided to appeal against the ruling and seek stiffer punishment.

Though some local news media said the court ruling should be respected, most newspapers in their commentaries described the sentences as too lenient and falling short of expectations.

Citizen 1985 called the verdict unacceptable, saying it would not rule out more protests.

Ma's continued struggles to secure the voters is particularly surprising given his image before becoming president. Back then, Ma was widely perceived as an able politician, especially compared to his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party, who is serving 19 years in jail over bribery charges.

Ma insists his government has sought to improve the economy and people's livelihood, and the public dissatisfaction must be the result of a communication problem.

As part of a strategy to fix that, Premier Jiang Yi-huah recently asked cabinet members to better formulate policies, press ahead with the government's agenda and seek public backing for their policies.

He also demanded all relevant officials increase their communication with the public so voters know exactly what the government has done.

But a verdict such as the one in Hung's case falls drastically short of people's expectations. Government interference in courts is of course loathsome. But perhaps Taiwanese authorities should consider adopting the jury system, which better represents the views of people than the small group of judges who now deliver rulings.