Hundreds of angry mourners mobbed Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday as he attended a funeral for an army corporal who died after being allegedly abused in a military jail early last month.
"Step down, president!" and "Give us truth!" shouted the mourners, a number of whom were relatives or neighbours of Hung Chung-chiu - a 24-year-old army corporal who died of what his superiors attributed to "heatstroke".
But investigations by military prosecutors later showed the victim was ordered to do excessive exercise in the jail as punishment for bringing a banned mobile phone to the military camp, despite his request for rest amid the high temperature.
The funeral service was held a day after more than 100,000 people demonstrated outside the president's office to protest against what they described as a "big cover-up" and "military abuse of human rights", following Hung's death.
The tragedy came as the public's confidence in the government wanes, due largely to the poor economy and dissatisfaction over the June signing of a cross-strait trade service pact with the mainland.
The disapproval escalated into outrage amid the heavy coverage of the abuse scandal by local media. Defence minister Kao Hua-chu resigned late last month in an attempt to help contain the political spillover.
But there have been no signs the public will be easily placated, despite Kao's resignation and the indictments of 18 officers by military prosecutors on charges related to Hung's death.
Some citizens said the charges were insufficient, claiming that subordinates were made into scapegoats while their superiors have escaped unscathed.
Local television yesterday showed a weary Ma, surrounded by more than a dozen bodyguards, walking through a 200-metre-long alley towards Hung's home in the central city of Taichung, the funeral site. It took several minutes for Ma to make his way past the angry protesters, many of whom demanded that military and government authorities clarify what happened and uphold justice.
Some mourners gave a thumbs down sign - a gesture used during an island-wide campaign in 2006 calling for the resignation of graft-tainted former president Chen Shui-bian - as Ma was whisked towards the funeral site.
Ma offered his condolences to the family and promised to uncover the truth of what happened. It was his second promise to the family, after visiting them last week.
He also told the family yesterday that he would closely monitor human-rights cases involving the military in order to help avoid similar tragedies in the future.
"As the leader of the nation and the three armed forces, I vow that Hung Chung-chiu will not have died in vain," the president said.
Premier Jiang Yi-huah said on Saturday that a special commission would be set up to deal with appeals and other cases regarding miscarriages of justice involving military servicemen.
Among the 18 officers charged, only a sergeant serving in the military jail was charged with involuntary manslaughter. The others were indicted on charges ranging from abuse to levying an illegal punishment, as well as denying the victim his freedoms.
All four officers who had been detained, including the sergeant, were released on bail last week before Saturday's mass protest - a move seen as further fuelling the public's ire.