The Taipei District Court was wise to reject the application by the Special Investigation Panel (SIP) for former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to be remanded in custody, and instead order his release without bail. This will hopefully cool the atmosphere surrounding the highly politicized case. There have been many complaints about the prosecution’s handling of the case, but now it is in the hands of the judiciary.
Prosecutors lodged accusations against Chen as soon as his term as president finished, and now he has become the first former president to face a criminal indictment. The SIP has indicted 14 people, including Chen and several family members, on charges ranging from embezzlement and money laundering to bribery over land deals and deal fixing. The case has attracted a great deal of attention at home and abroad, causing serious political and social repercussions and testing the maturity of Taiwan’s democracy and legal system.
The case shows that a former president is equal before the law and not immune from prosecution. Taiwan has come a long way since the days when the president had dictatorial powers similar to an emperor. The accusations against Chen highlight the fact that, while a head of state can easily abuse his powers, the president’s words and deeds are no longer above the law.
Whether the former president is guilty will be decided in the course of his trial(s). Chen must enjoy the same presumption of innocence and other legal rights as President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) did when he was charged in February last year with misuse of special funds as mayor of Taipei.
The SIP has been strongly criticized over the course of its investigation for unjust, malicious, unlawful and undemocratic behavior. The Code of Criminal Procedure (刑事訴訟法) states that criminal investigations must be conducted confidentially, but many details of the investigation have been leaked, raising suspicions that the SIP was deliberately publicizing confidential information to undermine the defense.
Inevitably, many people see the case as tainted by double standards, considering that Ma was neither handcuffed nor detained when he was under investigation, nor was he banned from changing his address or leaving the country.
In addition, there has been a wave of corruption investigations involving Democratic Progressive Party politicians, but hardly any against Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) members. The public perception has been of conviction before trial and excessive use of pre-trial detention as a means of extracting confessions, which is unconstitutional and an abuse of human rights.
By deviating from the principle of independent investigation — whether simply as perceived by the public or in fact, the SIP has undermined confidence in the country’s judicial system.
As Chen’s case goes to trial, the court should reject political and social interference and judge the prosecution and defense cases fairly and impartially. Only then will public confidence in our judicial system be restored.