Fri, Apr 06, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: A case for ending immunity

The most striking aspect of former Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou's (馬英九) trial on corruption charges is the fact that neither he nor his lawyer dispute the basic charges: that he took public money and sent it to a private account.

Instead, Ma seems to be counting on a back-door approach, which is perhaps a more fitting strategy for his style. Instead of trying to discredit the wealth of evidence prosecutors have gathered against him, he is instead arguing that he was unaware that he should not be treating the special allowance fund as personal income.

His lawyers also note that many other government officials acted in a similar manner with regard to their special allowances. They note that the Council of Grand Justices in 1997 issued a constitutional interpretation involving the special allowances of officials at the now-defunct National Assembly. That ruling implied that the allowances enjoyed a special legal status.

Now, the legal arguments that the former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman is making to defend himself boil down to: "But, I didn't mean to steal," and "Everyone else is doing it, so why can't I?"

The strategy doesn't seem over-burdened with legal acumen. One begins to wonder what, exactly, Ma was doing when he was attending Harvard Law School.

Pleading ignorance of the law is never justification for breaking it. Even children can pick up that basic legal principle from after-school TV shows.

The defense claim about the 1997 constitutional interpretation sounds convincing at first, until one considers that it still would not enable a public official to shift taxpayer dollars into their personal accounts.

Ma was a senior public official and an experienced bureaucrat. If he is unable to figure out what kind of behavior is acceptable as the mayor of Taipei, then one must ask what right he has to claim that he is qualified for the nation's highest office.

And what of the hundreds of other officials who have been skimming funds from public coffers? One can only say that we look forward to the day when they are dragged before the courts as well. A little spring cleaning never hurt anyone.

But Ma may be able to drag out the trial until next year's presidential election, which, if he were to win, would then render him untouchable as president.

Such a scenario presents a powerful argument for revoking the legal immunity that the president and lawmakers enjoy -- as though we needed more reminders about how this ridiculous holdover from the authoritarian era undermines our democracy.

No one is above the law, and the retention of this ridiculous part of the Constitution is more representative of the feudalistic underpinnings of the KMT than it is of a modern state.

Revoke immunity now. The pan-blues will be happy because they can then try President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). The pan-greens will be happy because it will ensure that if Ma is convicted, he cannot hold office.

But everyone should be happy, because it will help end the culture of entitlement and corruption that is exemplified by most of our political leaders.

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