After winning the election on Jan. 14, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said he no longer faced the pressure of seeking re-election and pledged to leave a legacy in his second term. In view of the increasing calls for the Ma administration to address former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) confinement and his deteriorating health, the legacy Ma is seeking hopefully does not include the death of a former president as a result of human rights negligence.
Chen is serving a 17-and-a-half-year prison term on corruption charges, sharing a 1.3 ping (4.29m2) cell with another inmate at Taipei Prison. His mental and physical state has become a growing concern to many, prompting National Taiwan University physician Ko Wen-che (柯文哲) — along with a number of other medical professionals and Chen supporters — to initiate a signature drive requesting medical parole for Chen. Several US representatives have also urged the administration of US President Barack Obama to take up Chen’s case, and, last week, two US lawmakers submitted a medical report to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, calling for immediate medical parole for Chen.
The latest to express concern over Chen’s mental and health condition was Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Hsu Tain-tsair (許添財), who, on visiting Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) on Tuesday, made an appeal for Chen. Hsu said the former president had attempted suicide at least three times during his incarceration.
While Taipei Prison authorities were quick to dismiss Hsu’s remarks as an exaggeration, saying they have been keeping a close watch on Chen’s health and believe he is mentally and physically sound, many members of the public remain unconvinced, recalling how Chen at one time was given the psychiatric medication Ativan by the prison without his knowledge.
Ma takes pride in his administration’s efforts to protect human rights, saying it was under his watch that Taiwan signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 2009. In April this year, while presenting a human rights report compiled by the Presidential Office’s human rights advisory panel, Ma again asserted his administration’s commitment to protecting human rights.
It is encouraging to see the head of state reiterating the importance of safeguarding human rights because Taiwan, as a young democracy, needs continuous efforts to consolidate its democracy, as well as to instill the importance of protecting these rights in every area of Taiwanese society. But how can Ma convince the public that his government is truly committed to protecting human rights when right under his nose there is a growing concern from people, both at home and abroad, over how a former president is being treated by his administration?
Instead of just paying lip service to protecting human rights, many are looking to Ma to exhibit the quality of a great leader that transcends the political divide. To soothe public concern over Chen’s condition in jail, as well as preserve Taiwan’s status as a rights-respecting country, Ma could, for example, initiate a meeting with Ko and his medical team and listen to their assessment of Chen’s mental and physical condition.
Such a move would not be deemed as interfering with the judiciary, as Ma has often said when it comes to legal matters, but as one demonstrating the basic respect and human concern that the president renders to a former head of state.