Associated Press

Taiwanese opposition leader Ma Ying-jeou indicted

February 13, 2007

Peter Enav, Associated Press Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan --Prosecutors indicted presidential hopeful Ma Ying-jeou on corruption charges Tuesday, dealing a blow to the Harvard-educated lawyer widely considered to be a front-runner.

Ma denied the charges in a televised speech and announced that he would run for president next year. Many have high hopes he will be able to improve Taiwan's rocky relations with rival China, which has repeatedly threatened to attack.

"I want to face the people and prove my innocence," he said, adding, "Ma Ying-jeou won't be knocked down."

However, Ma did announce that he would step down as chairman of the Nationalist Party in line with a promise he has made repeatedly over the past several weeks.

Investigators have spent three months probing allegations that Ma mishandled a public fund when he was the popular mayor of Taipei. The probe wrapped up Tuesday, and Chang Wen-cheng, spokesman for the Taipei High Prosecutors Office, announced on television that Ma was being charged.

Ma is accused of diverting $333,000 of public money to his private account. Chang said that Ma gave contradictory explanations to officials investigating how the money was handled.

Since taking over as chairman in August 2005, Ma has been considered the front-runner to take over from Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party as Taiwan's president.

The indictment could spell trouble for Taiwan's relations with China. Beijing is believed to have high hopes that a Ma victory in the 2008 presidential elections would help lead the way to eventual unification between the rivals, which split amid civil war in 1949.

The Nationalists favor unity -- though without putting a time limit on it -- while many in the DPP support a formalization of Taiwan's de facto independence.

Ma has led the opposition's criticisms of Chen over a series of alleged corruption scandals involving the president's family and inner circle.

Chen's wife and three presidential aides were indicted last November for allegedly skimming from a special presidential fund used to promote Taiwanese diplomatic activities abroad.

At the time, prosecutors said Chen could be indicted on the same charges when his immunity lapses after he leaves office.

Ma's Nationalist Party has said diverting money from municipal funds is common for Taiwanese local leaders, and is approved by government auditors.

The party says the leaders use diverted funds for legitimate purposes, including year-end bonuses for government workers.