Sun, Dec 25, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: `Soft coup' verdict not helpful

President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) seems to be having a run of bad luck. First, there was the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) defeat in the recent local government elections.

Then there was the major fall-out between him and Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) after Lu took over the position of acting chairman of the DPP.

Then last week, Chen was found guilty of libel by a district court for his remark that former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) had tried to instigate a so-called "soft coup" after last year's presidential election.

The verdict issued against Chen is controversial. Many would agree that extending legal immunity to a national leader for criminal offenses but not for civil offences has some fundamental problems. If a choice must be made, one would think that immunity should be given for the latter, not the former.

Presumably only criminal conduct is serious enough to warrant slapping the nation's leader with lawsuits and investigations during his term. For example, in the US, the Supreme Court has ruled that the president has immunity from civil cases seeking damages for all actions remotely related to his official duties.

Certainly, in the case at hand, Chen's remarks would have a good chance of falling within that definition.

In particular, the court's verdict orders Chen to pay damages of N$1 each to Soong and Lien and publish apologies to them in major national newspapers. One cannot help but wonder about the wisdom of ordering the nation's leader to make a spectacle of himself in this way.

All of the nation's politicians should be ashamed of themselves for the irresponsible mudslinging tactics they resort to on a regular basis -- including Chen himself. However, in the case at hand, were Chen's remarks so farfetched that they warrant this kind of public bashing of his credibility and authority? How can anyone forget the anxiety and worry that the entire country felt about the security and safety of the government in the wake of the demonstrations after the presidential election -- the violence, the rumors and the whispers?

Furthermore, if Chen complies with the court order, will he ever be able to speak with credibility as the nation's leader again? Is that good or bad for the country? Even if one assumes that he was guilty, that does not disqualify him from finishing his term. However, how effective will he be in that role if he complies with the court order? Is the punishment too harsh? Perhaps this is the reason some countries grant their leaders immunity from civil damages and liability.

In addition, Chen's remarks pale in comparison to the accusations and allegations made by Lien, Soong, and pan-blue leaders after the last presidential elections, and during the wild goose chase and witch hunt for evidence to prove that the Chen administration was guilty of ballot-tampering and faking an assassination attempt.

Nothing was ever turned up. Lien and Soong certainly owe Chen and the citizens of this country an apology. When is that going to happen?

No one denies that Chen has a lot of work to do in the days to come -- including internal party reforms and exercising more caution over what he says. However, this verdict is the wrong way to address his shortcomings.

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