As a former governor of Alaska (2002 to 2006) and also having served for 22 years in the US Senate, I have a strong interest in US relations with East Asia. Within that context, Taiwan is a place close to my heart, because I personally got to know the two men who pushed Taiwan in the direction of democracy, former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
Since that time, Taiwan has gone through some more cycles of change of government, which is an inherent part of a democratic system.
Indeed, in January, I headed the observer mission of the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan (ICFET), an international group of 19 academics from eight countries.
Our report on our findings is scheduled to come out in the next few weeks and I can already say that our conclusion is that the elections were mostly free, but only partly fair. You can read more details when the report comes out.
However, my comments here are not about the elections, but about the overall direction of the country.
It is undoubtedly clear that Taiwan lives in the shadow of an aggressive neighbor, but it should not allow that to determine its future as a free and democratic nation.
Taiwanese have worked long and hard for their democracy, and they need to continue to work hard to preserve and nurture their freedom and liberty. This work needs to be done internally, when they assess the functioning of the system of checks and balances — the legislature needs to be a stronghold of democracy where people with vision look after the longer-term interests of their constituents.
Freedom and liberty also need to be nurtured in the judicial system.
Many observers say that the judiciary is still strongly influenced by the politics of the ruling party and that there is a strong need for judicial reform. The legal community needs to champion the democratic process in Taiwan.
This brings me to a very specific issue of injustice — the way Chen is being treated. I am not discussing whether he was or was not guilty — although a number of international observers, such as Jerome Cohen, question whether he received a fair trial.
I am specifically focusing on his need for adequate medical treatment and the conditions under which he is being detained.
Most recently, on May 23, Chen was allowed to go to Cheng Kung Memorial Hospital for only six hours. Doctors said that they would need much more time to treat him adequately and that the six-hour time span had been a “political condition” imposed by the authorities.
The right thing to do would be for the authorities to release him on medical parole.
The second aspect is the conditions under which he is being detained — a small cell, with no bed, chair or desk.
If he wants to write, he has to lie down on the floor. Such treatment is unconscionable and reminiscent of the Soviet Union more than 45 years ago, not Taiwan in 2012.
The least that needs to be done is to give him an adequate cell, with a chair, desk and regular bed. Like other prisoners, he should be allowed to work outside his cell in the daytime, engaging in some physical activity. Finally, he should have full access to his lawyer and comprehensive medical care.
Dealing with controversial issues like this is not easy, but a fair and humanitarian resolution is essential if Taiwan wants to be considered a full democracy, worthy of international respect.