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September 15, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright September 15, 2009. Used by permission.


The first trial of former President Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁, some of his family members, and other defendants has run its course, with verdicts and sentencesbeing pronounced on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. Chen received a life sentence, a fine of NT$200 million (approximately US$6.1 million), and had his civil rights annulled for life. His wife received a nearly identical sentence, albeit with a larger fine (NT$300 million). His son was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison and fined NT$150 million, while his daughter-in-law received one year and eight months while being fined the same amount. Other members of Chen’s staff received lengthy jail terms, with the exception of an accountant who turned state’s evidence.

At this point in time, the following questions seem worth consideration:

Is Chen guilty? Difficult to answer convincingly unless one possesses the Chinese language skills and legal knowledge necessary to plough through all court documents, not to mention the 1,000+ page verdict (longer even than some doctoral theses at my alma mater Princeton). The case is clearly quite complicated, especially since Taiwan’s anti-corruption laws have been evolving over the past decade, meaning that some alleged crimes may not have been illegal when they were committed. However, at the very least Chen is guilty of misdeeds that have deeply disappointed and betrayed the trust of so many Taiwanese citizens who elected him President in 2000 and 2004. Even close supporters have issued calls for Chen and his family members to make public apologies for their actions.

Did he get a fair trial? A judgment call, but concerns have been raised about the length of his detention (over ten months now) and other aspects of the legal process. According to one article published in The Economist, while most Taiwanese believe that Chen was involved in some form of wrongdoing, there are concerns over whether he was treated impartially, particularly when a panel of judges that had ordered his release from detention was “mysteriously and secretively replaced” by a new panel, which subsequently presided over the trial.

Was the sentence too harsh? Hardly any Taiwanese politician found guilty of corruption has been condemned to such a lengthy prison term, while Chen’s wife and children are also facing long sentences and fines exceeding millions of US dollars. The Los Angeles Times called the sentence “unexpectedly stiff”, while theAssociated Press noted that its severity has caused some to believe that Chen was being “…persecuted for his pro-independence views and his central role in ending the 50-year monopoly on power of the now-resurgent Nationalists.”