In response to requests that former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) be released from jail for medical treatment, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) remarked a few days ago that it is a legal issue and not a political one. I am sure the majority of rational people will agree with this. However, we really should ask whether Ma has really viewed the developments in the Chen corruption case from a purely legal perspective.
It would seem that he has not. Ma has interpreted the law to meet his own interests, saying that releasing Chen for medical treatment is tantamount to medical parole and that would be letting him off the hook.
The majority of observers believe that Ma has some very “political” motives and that he is using these ideas to win over deep blue supporters at a time when his public approval rating has fallen to about 20 percent.
If we look back a little further, we see how the pan-blue camp, and this includes Ma, has used Chen as a sure-fire way to win votes.
For example, in this year’s presidential election, the pan-blue camp and Ma spread rumors that the associates of former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) were all members of a corrupt group. Clearly, in Ma’s mind, nothing to do with Chen has ever been only about the law.
This casts doubt on the idea that Chen’s release for medical treatment is purely legal in nature. As a former president, Chen is no ordinary inmate. Any news about Chen is potentially politically explosive. As a result, caution is needed when dealing with the issue and it is understandable why Ma is not willing to give in on this matter.
However, it is precisely because Chen is not an ordinary inmate that there should be more debate on whether he should be subject to normal legal regulations when it comes to his incarceration and medical treatment. To put it more bluntly, hardly an eyebrow would be raised at the news of the death of the average inmate behind bars. However, if that inmate was Chen, it would be an entirely different matter.
In 1955, former general Sun Li-jen (孫立人), notorious for fighting the Japanese in China, was accused of crimes such as “sheltering communist bandits” and “mutiny.” According to the laws of the time, he should have received the death penalty. However, Sun’s status meant that the most then-president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) could do was place him under house arrest for the rest of his life.
Chen should be punished by the law for the crimes he committed. However, as a former president, he does have a special status. This special status also means that it is impossible for politics not to affect his prison sentence, as well as the question of whether he should be released for medical treatment. Politicians of all affiliations are very well aware of this.
This being the case, it is best that we avoid disingenuous statements about the law in an attempt to sweep political issues under the carpet. Chen’s treatment is a political issue and it needs to be recognized as such.
Hsu Yu-fang is a professor of Sinophone literature at National Dong Hwa University.
Translated by Drew Cameron