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Taiwan's future depends on Chen getting fair trial

Thursday, January 22, 2009


The presumption that Taiwan's former president Chen Shui-bian is innocent - until any finding of guilt - of charges that could put him in jail for life will, to many people, seem doubtful now that three close relatives have pleaded guilty to similar allegations. He has already spent most of the past three months in prison. Chen has said that his wife transferred millions of dollars of government funds overseas without his knowledge.

Throughout, he has strenuously denied that he has done anything wrong, and claimed that the charges against him are politically motivated. As compelling as the evidence against him appears to be, it is important for the island's sake that preconceived notions are set aside so that the ex-leader can receive as free and fair a trial as possible.

Taiwanese have much to lose if this does not come to pass. The island's political and social stability, rule of law and reputation are at stake. That a former leader - one who took office espousing clean governance - has been charged with embezzlement, taking bribes, money laundering, influence-peddling and blackmail is a tragic blow for the island's young democracy. Faith in the system took a further battering yesterday when his son, daughter-in-law and brother-in-law pleaded guilty to money laundering.

The island is deeply divided over its relations with the mainland. Throughout his eight years as president, Chen espoused independence, and there is still much support in Taiwan for such a move. His successor, Ma Ying-jeou, has been instrumental in bringing about closer ties with Beijing since taking office in May. The charges against Chen are, in the circumstances, seen by his backers as being political rather than criminal.

Taiwan's judicial system has long been criticised by human rights advocates. They have questioned the arrests and detention of other members of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party. Prosecutors have leaked sensitive information that has led to trial by media. Sectors of society are suspicious of the impartiality of some judges, even though the judiciary has repeatedly asserted its independence.

There is no doubt that yesterday's guilty pleas damage the cause of the Chen family and others tied up in the corruption scandal. There is no more powerful evidence against a person than his or her own admission of guilt. But we may yet find that the pleas are part of a wider strategy. One strand of Confucian teaching advocates that family members must protect one another, no matter what the circumstances, but another says that justice must precede kinship. Many months of the case remain and only time will tell.

Whatever the reason for the pleas, it is essential that justice is seen to be done. Politics must not have any part in the trials. Every effort has to be made to show that Taiwan has an independent judiciary. Only through the impartiality of judges and the transparency of the legal system can this happen. Taiwan's future depends on it.