One could reasonably expect that a former vice president — and student of law to boot — would have a basic grasp of the judicial process.
But when Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) over the weekend called on former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to apologize to the public for his alleged involvement in a variety of scandals, she showed a disregard for the presumption of innocence. That principle is enshrined in Paragraph 1, Article 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (刑事訴訟法).
“What the former first family members have done has harmed Taiwan and hurt their supporters,” Lu said, and called on Chen and his family to “be courageous and apologize to the public.”
As someone who casts herself as a defender of human rights and democracy, Lu would do well to abide by the basic principles of the ideology she espouses. Instead, she was unambiguous in her statement that the former first family had indeed committed unlawful acts.
Just one day earlier, in Taichung City, Lu said the decision to release Chen showed that the court respected human rights. She also emphasized the importance of a fair trial for Chen, adding that “society should not interfere.”
How quickly those words were forgotten.
As a prominent figure of her political party and former government leader, Lu’s comments on Sunday risk giving the impression that presuming guilt is acceptable under certain circumstances. They risk fueling a tendency in Taiwan toward trial by media and public opinion before a case has even reached a district court.
Lu’s comments once again exposed her habit of making inappropriate and self-righteous statements designed to win herself a share of the limelight. She has often been quick to jump on the actions of others when it would have been advisable not to comment at all.
But while Lu imagines herself to be a voice of justice, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) must continue to insist on calm and urge the public and media outlets to refrain from making the courts’ decision for them.
The DPP arguably runs a risk in seeming to stand by Chen as he goes into a series of court cases with the potential to put him behind bars for “life” — a sentence that usually translates into 15 years. From this perspective, Lu’s position may seem infinitely easier: Hop on the bandwagon of public opinion and avoid falling under its grinding wheels instead.
Ultimately, however, the DPP must stand by the principles by which it has sought to strengthen Taiwan’s rule of law and democracy.
When Chen withdrew from the party after admitting that his wife had wired substantial sums of money abroad, DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) wrote an open letter, which was published in this and other newspapers.
She called for a fair trial for the former president, while recognizing a painful new situation for the party and Chen’s supporters, and saying that the DPP, like Chen, must face whatever was to come.
“This is an opportunity for the entire nation to learn about democracy and self-discipline, and everyone should remain calm and rational,” Tsai said in the letter.
We can only be grateful that it is Tsai and not Lu who speaks for her party at this time.