Kyodo News Report


Taiwan court gives life sentence to ex-president Chen for graft

Friday, September 11th, 2009
By Max Hirsch

Taipei, TAIWAN -- A Taiwanese court sentenced on Friday former president Chen Shui-bian to life in prison for corruption, a verdict that sent political shockwaves across the island as the opposition camp and foreign pundits cried foul over apparent irregularities in the trial.

The Taipei District Court handed down the sentence against Chen for charges of embezzlement and accepting bribes. In the same verdict, the court also sentenced Chen's wife, former First Lady Wu Shu-chen, to life in prison on related graft charges.

The verdict cites the duo's alleged embezzlement of more than US$3 million from a presidential discretionary account during Chen's two terms as president, and receipt of nearly US$12 million in kickbacks.

Additionally, the former first couple was fined roughly US$18 million, according to the government-funded Central News Agency (CNA). Chen plans to appeal the verdict, his office said in a statement.

"Chen Shui-bian has inflicted grave damage on the country, while Wu Shu-chen committed graft as first lady," said court spokesman Huang Chun-ming. "Thus, they should receive life sentences."

The verdict came amid raucous protests at the courthouse, as police and barbed-wire barricades held back a throng of Chen supporters who waved pickets and demanded his release.

Chen, who served the maximum two terms as president from 2000-2008, has pleaded innocent to all charges and vowed to appeal the verdict, according to the statement. The charges constitute political persecution amid the island's bid, under President Ma Ying-jeou, to forge closer ties with rival China, Chen has alleged.

"Political interference in this case has been very clear. The defendant's legal rights have been violated," said Ker Chien-ming, a prominent DPP lawmaker, referring to Chen, who withdrew from the party last year over graft allegations.

Ma, of the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), took office last year on vows to improve relations with Beijing and launched talks on economic cooperation after a nearly decade-long chill in relations with the mainland under Chen.

By championing the island's sovereignty as president, Chen, 58, had earned a reputation for feistiness and riling Beijing, which claims the island as part of its territory. Chen's assertions of the island's sovereignty also tended to unnerve Washington, the island's security benefactor.

Ma, on the other hand, has staked a reputation on ratcheting down tensions across the Taiwan Strait by emphasizing economic links with China over moves to safeguard the island's often imperiled sovereignty, as Beijing seeks to unify the island with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Chen has been detained since Dec. 25th on grounds he poses risks of collusion or flight, according to the court. In Taiwan, criminal suspects can be detained for months, but it is rare for a suspect to be held before and during his trial for such a long period.

Chen was also held incommunicado from Nov. 12-Dec. 12 before prosecutors in the case produced an indictment against the former president, who stepped down from office on May 20 last year.

The court remanded Chen into custody on Dec. 30 after the original panel of judges overseeing his case ordered him free on his own recognizance on Dec. 13. Under pressure from the KMT, the court replaced the panel, with the new head judge, Tsai Shou-hsun, quickly ordering Chen back into detention.

Tsai is the same judge who acquitted Ma of corruption charges in 2007.

Further doubts emerged over the fairness of Chen's trial after Justice Ministry officials hosted a Jan. 11 stage play in which prosecutors involved in Chen's case reenacted the moment of his arrest. In the comic skit, one prosecutor mimicked Chen for a cheering audience of judges and other senior ministry officials, including Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng.

"It appears that the court is out to get the former president. If that is indeed the case, this is a very backward step for Taiwan's democratization process," said Bruce Jacobs, a Taiwan expert at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

To be sure, doubts over Chen's integrity are widespread on this island of 23 million. Indeed, Chen himself has said his wife, without his knowledge, wired abroad tens of millions of U.S. dollars in political contributions since the 1990s. However, Chen denies he broke any laws.

" guilty of not controlling his family," his office said in the statement. "However," it added, "cultural guilt is not the same as legal guilt."

Still, DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen declined to back Chen's claims of innocence in a press conference on Friday, merely expressing concern for his legal rights.

Chen's son Chen Chih-chung and daughter-in-law were sentenced to 2 years and six months and 20 months in prison, respectively, for their roles in laundering funds, while 10 other co-defendants -- including businesspeople and former presidential aids -- received sentences ranging from 2 to 20 years on related graft and forgery charges, CNA said.