For a long time I have wanted to write something about the detention of former President Chen Shui-bian. I have avoided it for a number of reasons. First, it has been painful to watch the downfall of someone I once greatly admired. Second, I find it hard to accept the animosity and vitriol that many people in Taiwan express toward A-bian. It is clear the KMT and its cohorts in the media have succeeded in convincing a significant percentage of people in Taiwan that A-bian is an evil monster who doesn’t even deserve basic human rights. As a result it is difficult to have a calm and rational conversation about the topic.
A must read article by Paul Katz (中文) at The China Beat finally prompted me to go back to this article that has been in draft for so long. Katz writes that 4 June marks the 185th day of Chen’s detention. That’s more than half a year. It’s too long. Remember that Chen was first detained on 12 November 2008 and not indicted until 12 December 2008. He was released and two subsequent appeals by prosecutors to detain Chen were rejected by the court. It was only after the much criticised switching of judges that Chen was detained again on 30 December 2008. He has been continuously in detention since then.
It is clear that Chen Shui-bian’s family have engaged in inappropriate financial dealings. Their actions should be investigated and tried before a court. All people are equal before the law and the fact a former President is on trial is proof of that. Nobody should escape justice because of any position they hold. It is important to remember though, there is a significant difference between doing something wrong and being found guilty in a court of law. The principles of being innocent until proven guilty and the right to a fair trial are fundamental.
From the beginning it was obvious Chen’s trial would be subject to great scrutiny and needed to be conducted to the highest judicial standards. Katz expresses it quite eloquently:
having a top-ranking politician found guilty after a trial deemed fair and impartial would constitute an immense boost in prestige for Taiwan’s judicial system, while also sending a crystal-clear message to all politicians facing similar forms of temptation. However, a conviction following proceedings that suggest Chen is presumed guilty and likely to be found guilty as well would represent a major step backwards, and risk causing a reversion to traditional views of the law as being simply a tool to enhance state interests.
Chen’s trial has been marked by ongoing events which show that the judiciary doesn’t adhere to the high standards that it should. There has been political interference in the appointment of judges, inappropriate behaviour by prosecutors and a lack of respect for basic principles of human rights. Chen’s detention has limited his ability to properly consult with his lawyers in preparing the case for his defense. Chen has a sharp legal mind and the chance to stand up and defend himself in a fair trial is something that he would have relished not run away from.
Ma Ying-jeou was charged with corruption in 2007 and subsequently acquitted. He did not spend a single day in detention. The double standard in Chen’s ongoing detention is clear and obvious. Katz further elucidates here:
detention of politicians on such charges is almost unprecedented. Over the years, numerous politicians of all stripes have been accused of corruption. Some have been found guilty and sent to prison, while others have been proven innocent. Only a small percentage has been subjected to detention (most are allowed the right to bail), although many suspects have fled the country and are currently living high on the hog (swine flu notwithstanding) in China and the U.S. Apart from Chen, however, no Taiwanese politician has been detained for such a long period of time on corruption charges without having first been convicted of a crime.
The real reason for A-bian’s ongoing detention has nothing to do with justice. The Taiwan News writes in its editorial today:
After all, the genuine source of the hatred against Chen has little to do with the question of whether he was really corrupt but lies in the fact that the human rights lawyer and fiery lawmaker and “upstart,” for all of his undeniable defects, led Taiwan’s grassroots Democratic Progressive Party in an electoral campaign that pulled the KMT down after nearly 55 years of unchallenged authoritarian and one-party dominant rule.
The Ma government had a great chance to show that it was genuinely committed to fighting corruption through Chen’s trial. Instead we got a circus, a kangaroo court and trial by media. There is no justice in Taiwan. The KMT continues to act with impunity while those that challenge its power are persecuted.