Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is serving a 17-and-a-half year prison sentence and there are more cases under investigation that could see him receive another conviction. If given any further prison sentences, Chen could very well end up dying behind bars, a scenario he talked about in an article he wrote for the Chinese-language Next Magazine titled “The Death of a Former President.”
In the article, Chen, in order to plead with the deep-blue camp, ignored the danger that pro-green academics like Wu Nai-teh (吳乃德) might reproach him for going against the principles of transitional justice by citing his initiative to amend the Statute Governing Preferential Treatment to Retired Presidents and Vice Presidents (卸任總統副總統禮遇條例) several years ago to legalize the special privileges given to former first lady Soong Mayling (宋美齡).
It is very rare for a president to get locked up for life in any part of the world, and there are not many countries where prison sentences for corrupt officials are as heavy as in Taiwan, where one could be given life in prison. Had Chen been the president of a Western democratic nation, there is no way he would have been handed down such a heavy sentence. This is not because Western democracies are more tolerant of corrupt leaders, or because they invoke special pardons or medical parole, but because corruption among Western officials is nowhere near as widespread as it is in Asia.
Western countries do have problems with government corruption, but the sentences given to officials are much lower than in Taiwan. In Germany, the highest sentence is three years, in Japan it is five to 15 years and in the UK it is 14 years. Even in Mongolia, which is hardly an advanced democracy, former Mongolian president Nambaryn Enkhbayar was sentenced to four years for corruption.
In China, the maximum penalty for corruption is still the death sentence. However, because the feudal idea that senior officials should not receive the death penalty still prevails in China, lower-ranking civil servants are often the ones who are sentenced to death, while higher-ranking government officials, although their corruption is among the most serious in the world, are normally only brought to court when they mess things up politically. Even after sentencing, such people are mostly held under house arrest, stay in luxurious prisons, or are released on medical parole. They are not locked up for life, especially if it is a former president.
In South Korea, which like Taiwan is deeply influenced by traditional Chinese culture, corrupt officials are also given the death sentence. They have set a world record in giving heavy sentences to a string of former presidents, but none of them died in prison, apart from former president Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide out of shame while being investigated for corruption. Former South Korean presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were given a life sentence and 17 years respectively, but were both pardoned after admitting their wrongdoing and repenting.
It will look very bad if Taiwan locks up a former president until he dies. Unfortunately, Taiwan is not a country that hands down light sentences for corruption and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been unwilling to exercise his right to pardon.
To avoid locking Chen up until he dies, suggestions for medical parole and house arrest similar to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) practices have been made.