Concern over the neutrality of the nation’s judiciary and its officials since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) assumed office will only be heightened by the circumstances surrounding the Taipei District Court’s decision early on Tuesday to detain former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) ahead of his trial.
The reasons cited by prosecutors — that he was at risk of fleeing the country and that his being free could stop witnesses from talking — were preposterous, and were rejected in the first two District Court hearings.
The new judges who delivered the latest verdict, however, believe that a former president under 24-hour protection by a state-funded security detail could make his way off the island without anyone noticing, and that he might personally threaten witnesses like a low-rent thug.
It is a perplexing decision, to put it politely.
The in-depth coverage that Chen’s alleged crimes have received in local media over the last few months seems to have succeeded in convincing a majority of people — including members of the judiciary — that Chen is the biggest tyrant in this part of the world since Genghis Khan. Even so, in the eyes of the law — if not all of the law’s guardians — he remains innocent until proven guilty.
The other major cause for concern is last week’s replacement of the original Taipei District Court judge in the case, Chou Chan-chun (周占春), who was demonized and threatened with impeachment by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) politicians after releasing Chen without bail and then confirming the decision on appeal.
Judge Chou’s removal from the case came just a few days after several KMT politicians called for his replacement based on unproven allegations from KMT Legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅) — a convicted criminal and member of the Judiciary, Organic Laws and Statutes Committee — that Judge Chou had said Ma should have been jailed for misusing his mayoral allowance as Taipei mayor.
The judge’s removal was unprecedented for such a high-profile case, while the timing of the KMT politicians’ threats and the court’s inexplicable voting out of Judge Chou casts doubt on the integrity of all involved.
But this is not the first apparently politically motivated maneuver in the Chen case.
Back in September, in a move that can only be read as a nod to higher-ups, the Special Investigation Panel prosecutors in charge of the probe held a press conference to announce that they would step down if they failed to bring the case to court by year’s end.
Then, two members of a high-profile business family — one a fugitive — turned state witness and agreed to testify about allegedly illegal business deals involving Chen’s family. Somehow the fugitive managed to avoid detention after his return from Japan.
Then came the incredible claim from the District Court on Tuesday that it would be difficult to prosecute Chen if he were not kept in custody.
Add all these elements together and independent observers could be forgiven for thinking that this crucial and complex trial is degenerating into an amateurish celebrity witch-hunt.
The reputation of top judicial officials is in jeopardy. Add to this the perception of a politicized Taipei District Court and little wonder the expression “kangaroo court” is beginning to do the rounds.
Given the antipathy that Chen has generated among people on his own side of politics, the fact that he is generating increasing amounts of sympathy points to a court and prosecutorial system on the brink of losing public confidence.