DFAT documents on human rights in Taiwan

Last year I submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) via the website Right to Know. The purpose of the request was to find out about Australian government’s attitude toward and monitoring of human rights issues in Taiwan. In particular the request focused on information regarding the detention and trial of former president Chen Shui-bian and other officials from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on corruption related charges.

After several months the documents have been released by DFAT. There were a total of 24 cables from the Australian Office Taipei in the release. They cover the period from May 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou took office, to January this year.

The cables reveal several matters which were of particular interest to Australia. The first of these was the PNG bribery scandal. This involved a payment of US $30 million dollars to two middlemen in Singapore in an attempt to gain “diplomatic recognition” from PNG. The scandal resulted in then Vice-Premier Chiou I-jen and Minister for Foreign Affairs James Huang resigning in May 2008, shortly before President Chen Shui-bian’s term expired.

The cable dated 7 May 2008 notes that, “the most likely explanation for the whole affair would seem to be that [Huang and Chiou] were taken in by two conmen.” This analysis has proved correct although it was not until June 2012 that Chiou was found not guilty in the High Court. Continue reading

My letter to the Taipei Times about Chen Shui-bian

My letter urging the government of Taiwan to grant medical parole was published in the Taipei Times today. I have been concerned about the treatment of Chen Shui-bian for some time. The recent reports issued by the Control Yuan and international group of human rights experts* highlight that the government has treated Chen poorly and must redress the situation. The text of my letter is below. Please also read this excellent polemic on the disgraceful state of Taiwan’s justice system published in the Taipei Times a couple of days ago.

For many months now, I have been closely following reports in the Taipei Times about the health of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). I have felt dismayed by the decline in his health in recent months.

Video released recently provides evidence of the deterioration of Chen’s condition. I was also shocked to read that Chen was unable to attend a court hearing because he could not speak properly (“Church lambasts Ma over treatment of Chen Shui-bian,” March 2, page 3).

An international group of human rights experts has just issued a series of recommendations on improving human rights in Taiwan. These included the recommendation that the government take “appropriate action” concerning the health of Chen Shui-bian. (“Rights experts call for end to death penalty,” March 2, page 1).

The experts did not specifically recommend what action the government should take, but it is clear that they regard Chen’s treatment in prison and current situation in the Taipei Veterans General Hospital as unsatisfactory.

A week earlier, the Control Yuan issued a report recognizing “flaws” and “negligence” in the way in which the Ministry of Justice and Taipei Prison have handled Chen’s health problems (“Control Yuan OKs report on ‘flaws’ in A-bian’s care,” Feb. 23, page 1).

Both the Control Yuan and the group of international experts have made recommendations based on consideration of the available evidence.

It is time that the government acted on this evidence by granting medical parole to Chen.

*I have posted a copy of the recommendations of the international groups of human rights experts on my other Taiwan blog. The recommendations cover a broad range of human rights issues. Even if the government doesn’t take effective action on these issues, the document provides a strong base from which activists can argue for improvement of human rights in Taiwan.

Time to speak out against injustice

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
— Elie Wiesel

Taiwan’s courts have handed down not guilty verdicts in two notable cases this week. Former president Chen Shui-bian was found not guilty in the Supreme Court in the special diplomatic funds case. The verdict was only briefly reported by most media, however its significance should not be ignored.

The verdict further vindicates A-bian’s claims that he is innocent and a victim of political persecution. In November last year A-bian and his co-defendants were all found not guilty in the financial mergers case. However, just one week later the Supreme Court ruled that A-bian and his wife Wu Shu-jen were guilty in the Longtan land deal case. Continue reading

Taiwan steady in Freedom House rankings

Freedom in the World 2001 map of Asia

Freedom House released its Freedom in the World 2011 report yesterday. The report’s key finding was that freedom declined globally for the fifth consecutive year. Freedom House noted that authoritarian regimes like those in China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela continued to step up repressive measures with little significant resistance from the democratic world.

Taiwan’s ranking was unchanged from last year. Taiwan scored one for political rights and two for civil liberties to retain its status as “free”. Taiwan’s scores were the same as South Korea and Japan. The Taipei Times has some comments about Taiwan from a researcher at Freedom House.

“Taiwan remained one of Asia’s strongest democracies,” Sarah Cook, Asia research analyst and assistant editor at Freedom House, told the Taipei Times by e-mail yesterday.

“Municipal elections held [on Nov. 27] were widely viewed as free and fair, despite a shooting at a rally the evening before the polls,” Cook said. Continue reading

Without judicial reform there will be more injustice

On 12 November 2010 the High Court found the Hsichih Trio not guilty of charges of murder and robbery. Many hoped this finally marked the end of the case that has seen three men spend almost twenty years of their lives dragged through the courts and facing the death penalty. However, this week the prosecutors filed another appeal in the case again taking it to the Supreme Court.

The prosecutors’ case is based on confessions extracted under torture. There is no physical evidence that the three accused were at the scene of the crime. Despite this the case has been the subject of 13 trials and retrials. The entire case highlights multiple problems in Taiwan’s justice system.

Since the KMT returned to power in 2008 President Ma Ying-jeou has on numerous occassions cited the importance of judicial reform. Yet, apart from the removal of a few corrupt judges, there seems to have been no progress and judicial rights have gone backwards. The cases involving former President Chen Shui-bian have also highlighted many procedural problems in the justice system. There is also concern that the verdicts may have been influenced by political pressure in the lead up to the five cities election. (See my letter to the Taipei Times raising questions about judicial independence.)

2010 has also seen the return of the death penalty in Taiwan with four men executed on 30 April ending a four and a half year unofficial moratorium. Unless more substantial action is taken on judicial reform and the abolition of the death penalty any claims that the Ma government makes about improvements in human rights will have no substance.

Amnesty International released a public statement on the Hsichih Trio case on 10 December 2010 which was also Human Rights Day. The full text of the statement is below.

Continue reading

Questions about judicial independence

I had a letter published in the Taipei Times today on the topic of judicial independence. The letter was written after the Taipei District Court handed down a not guilty verdict in Chen Shui-bian’s financial mergers case. However, after I sent the letter Chen was subsequently found guilty by the Supreme Court in the Longtan land deal case. An excellent article by J. Michael Cole in response to the Supreme Court decision asks the all important question, Was the judiciary independent?. My letter is pasted below.

An independent judiciary is a key foundation of democracy. So is the principle of being innocent until proven guilty.

However, the response to the not guilty verdict in the case of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) handed down by Taipei District Court on Nov. 5 shows there is still a lack of respect for these important principles in Taiwan. Continue reading

Families of murder victims speak at forum in Taichung

Speakers from Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights in Taichung

Four members of the organisation Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) from the United States spoke at a forum in Taichung last night. They talked of their experiences as victims of murder and violent crime and how they came to be activists against the death penalty. It is a common assumption that the families of murder victims would all support the death penalty. However, the speakers showed that this is a false assumption and they all sought to affirm the importance of human rights and the value of human life.

Aba Gayle began by speaking about her personal experience following the murder of her 19 year old daughter Catherine. For eight years following Catherine’s murder Gayle she experienced what she called “eight years of darkness.” She was consumed with anger. Gayle said anger is a normal part of the grieving process but many families become stuck in it.

Eventually Gayle began a process of healing through practice of meditation and study of the world’s wisdom traditions. She went on to write a letter to Douglas Mickey, the man who murdered Catherine. In the moment of sending the letter all the feelings of anger were gone and she felt peace, love and joy, she said. She then went to visit Mickey in prison and resolved to become an advocate for the men on death row. Continue reading

Taiwan needs justice not persecution

Update: This article has been translated into Chinese: 台灣需要公平正義而不是迫害. Paul Katz’s article has also been translated: 六月四日,阿扁羈押半年紀念日.

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. Continue reading