The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is seen by many as the proverbial beggar who came and took over Taiwan’s Temple (乞丐趕廟公). It came as a colonial power, destroyed the island’s economy to support its losing war effort in China, and finally retreated back to the island to grab positions of power, property and wealth as its own.
It is in this context that the charade of a corruption trial of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) needs to be seen.
With this trial, the evidence is mounting not over Chen’s guilt, but over judicial double standards. Such double standards have been a characteristic of KMT rule for most of its existence.
Chen’s greatest handicap remains that he is Taiwanese and that he stood up to the KMT; his worst mistake was that he allegedly used a corrupt system installed by the beggar in the temple for his own benefit.
Great amounts of taxpayer money have been moved offshore from Taiwan into overseas bank accounts for decades. After Sept. 11, 2001, however, a US administration eager to track money used by terrorists required that banks declare large international transfers.
Many in the KMT were lucky that this change took place after the party lost power in 2000. Enormous amounts of money had gone under the radar screen. Allegedly similar funds moved by Chen, however, quickly showed up, concentrating the focus on the former president and leaving past abuses untouched.
Unprofessional behavior has marked Chen’s trial from the beginning.
The prosecutors began their work by stating that they would resign if they did not find the evidence to deliver a guilty verdict.
Prosecutors have largely failed to expose the corrupt system that has allowed all levels of government officials to skim and pilfer for decades, but they knew that a system of discretionary administrative funds was built to be abused.
Buoyed with confidence, certain prosecutors and at least one judge later made it a point to publicly mock Chen by impersonating him in handcuffs at a party at the end of last year.
However, the system of discretionary administrative funds has proved to be a two-edged sword.
So loose are the regulations and so frequently have they been abused that after all this time the prosecution has yet to build a substantial case.
Although the formal pursuit and indictment had to be delayed until Chen left office, the investigation in substance began more than three years ago. Yet the case brought against Chen remains a fishing expedition in want of solid evidence.
Prosecutors have therefore resorted to other means.
One was to have Chen detained and not allow him the chance to prepare an adequate defense.
For a considerable period of time, Chen was not allowed private consultations with his lawyers or visitors. Prosecutors could quietly interview and indict witnesses to get the answers they wanted, yet at the same time they and the court made sure that Chen could see no one in private.
Lawyer-client privilege be damned: They demanded, and enjoyed, the right to listen in on any discussions between Chen and his legal team.
Eventually this practice was declared unconstitutional, but that did not give Chen back the time he needed to prepare his defense.
Even now, Chen’s visitors cannot enjoy complete privacy when meeting a man who is technically innocent.
When a previous judge ruled against detaining Chen prior to trial, KMT legislators applied public pressure until a new judge was brought in — and the new judge promptly reversed the decision.
The real trial should be for a corrupt system that allows public money to be used and distributed in a haphazard, unaccountable manner — a system that is still in place.
Numerous KMT leaders who were indicted and found guilty of corruption never spent a day in jail throughout the judicial process.
The highest-profile example would be President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who never saw the inside of a cell prior to the overturning of his guilty verdict. Instead, Ma’s secretary did time for his involvement in the case.
People First Party Chairman and former KMT luminary James Soong (宋楚瑜) was found guilty of manipulating sums much larger than that Chen was indicted for, and was even about to be sued by the KMT, but he never spent a minute in jail either.
Elsewhere, former KMT legislator Diane Lee (李慶安) gained millions in improperly holding office while being a dual citizen. She has not even been indicted. To this day, scandalous numbers of pre-2000 KMT money movers walk the streets.
Numerous leaks to the press resulted in Chen’s vilification before his trial, reflecting the way in which the media serve as a tool in extrajudicial declarations of guilt.
At the same time, the prosecutors vigorously blocked Chen from talking to the media because they know and fear that he could embarrass them.
The current minister of justice will say that the case is not political because Chen’s judge was appointed during his presidency.
What the minister does not say is that the KMT-dominated legislature held the public service watchdog, the Control Yuan, hostage for three years.
They repeatedly rejected Chen’s nominations. Chen had to either appoint a list vetted by the KMT or leave the country without Control Yuan members to handle a growing number of cases.
Similarly, the minister of justice tries to rationalize this unjust situation by saying that the prosecutors are independent and impartial, but being free to be impartial and being impartial are different matters altogether: One does not necessarily follow the other.
Chen’s trial is not about justice.
It is an attempt to distract from and expunge the guilt of more than a half-century of corruption and money-laundering using an unjust and unconstitutional prosecution of one man today.
Chen’s real sin is that he, as a Taiwanese, had the audacity to utilize and expose the system installed by the beggar in the temple.
The greatest crime is that the system lives on.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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