Ever since the world saw former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) handcuffed on Nov. 12 before he was whisked away to a detention center, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has made such a mess of the case against him that regardless of the final ruling (pre-trial hearings opened yesterday), doubt will remain as to whether Chen received the rights that are usually conferred upon defendants in a democratic system.
As a result of numerous leaks to the media, open personal grudges by KMT officials, judicial gerrymandering and unsavory “skits,” what could have been a case backed by solid evidence has turned into what law professor Jerome Cohen, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) former mentor at Harvard University, last week compared to a “circus.” Given this, with the possible exception of die-hard pan-blue Chen bashers, the majority of us will find it difficult to accept a “guilty” verdict — a foregone conclusion, judging by the wind — without skepticism.
As a result, a benchmark in the nation’s history will be clouded by lingering questions about impartiality, political vengeance and government meddling in the judiciary — developments that hardly resonate with democratic nation-building.
The announcement last week by the Taipei District Court that Chen’s hearings would not be broadcast — unless the presiding judge decides otherwise, which is highly unlikely — can only undermine the judiciary’s legitimacy in the eyes of Taiwanese, or at least raise even more questions. While Article 90 of the Organic Act of Court Organization (法院組織法) does give courts the right to legally prevent broadcasts, given the stature of the accused and the implications for the future of the nation, an exception could have been made.
Of course, anyone who witnessed Chen’s performance as a lawyer in the 1980s defending such luminaries as future Democratic Progressive Party chairman and leader of the Kaohsiung Incident Huang Hsin-chieh (黃信介) would be aware that allowing Chen to appear on TV screens in every household during the hearings would spell great trouble for prosecutors — and by rebound the KMT. But given the circumstances and all the questions that have surrounded the case since Chen was taken into custody, allowing the public to view the proceedings, rather than the censored leaks we are likely to be served by the authorities, would have been the proper thing to do. In fact, if prosecutors were so certain, as they seem, of the air-tightness of their charges against the former president, they would not hesitate to make the process fully transparent.
After more than a month of blunders and reversals highlighted by criticism both at home and abroad about the questionable lack of impartiality and independence of the judiciary, prosecutors had a chance to set things straight by allowing some light into the process. Rather, they chose to keep everything in the dark, a decision that is certain to fuel further speculation that Chen may indeed have been a political sacrificial lamb rather than a man in high office who abused his powers to steal from public coffers.
As a result of the mishandled case and the circus-like atmosphere, prosecutors have put themselves into an uncomfortable corner. Having reached a point where only transparence could dispel suspicions (which would mean giving Chen air time), they elected to go the authoritarian way, where court rulings are made in secret, away from public scrutiny.