The Ministry of Justice has put itself in a difficult situation with its handling of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) application to attend a fundraising dinner, although it could have avoided the problem if it was not so sensitive.
Having been released on medical parole from Taichung Prison last year, the former president is banned from making public appearances, taking part in political activities and other things unrelated to his recovery.
Therefore, when Chen filed an application to attend a fundraiser hosted by the Ketagalan Foundation — which he founded during his presidency — Taichung Prison defined the fundraiser as a “political event,” saying that it would be “inappropriate” for him to attend, but added that the former president may meet with friends in private and should refrain from appearing on stage, delivering a public speech or speaking to the media.
As Chen insisted on attending the fundraiser, the ministry later relaxed the regulation by saying that as long as Chen does not appear in the main banquet hall — he may stay in a separate room that is neither connected to the banquet hall nor open to the public — he would not be in violation of the ban on public appearances.
Taichung Prison even made a telephone call to Chen and his family yesterday morning, reminding them that Chen may be sent back to prison if he breaks the rules.
Interestingly enough, at the fundraiser, most of the people lined up outside the room where Chen stayed, waiting to see him, instead of sitting in their seats for the dinner.
On his way to the high-speed railway station to return to Kaohsiung, Chen took an escalator down to de facto greet the crowd without breaking the ban on making a public appearance.
All these troubles — both for the ministry and for Chen — happened because the ministry defined the fundraiser as a “political event;” it could have avoided the problems if it was not so sensitive.
Chen has been in politics for three decades — serving as a Taipei City councilor, legislator, Taipei mayor, president, as well as Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairman.
How could someone with such a political career avoid meeting people who are related to politics in some way or completely avoid attending events where there are other politicians?
Yes, there should be rules regulating the activities of someone who leaves prison on medical parole so that people would not find excuses to dodge their sentences. However, the rules should be reasonable.
The ministry and the prison said that meeting old friends might be helpful to Chen’s recovery, hence deciding that he may attend private meetings.
However, what is the difference between Chen sitting behind closed doors with “old friends” and sitting at a fundraiser quietly without delivering a public speech, appearing on stage or talking to the media?
If any prisoner on medical parole could meet with friends and attend a banquet at the invitation of old acquaintances, why should Chen be different because of his former job?
While it is true that the ministry should be extra cautious when handling such sensitive issues, it should not be too sensitive to the extent that it would get itself into a difficult situation.
Many DPP supporters at the event criticized Minister of Justice Chiu Tai-san (邱太三) for being too harsh on Chen.
As the DPP administration has more challenges to come, it should find a way to better respond to its supporters on a number of sensitive issues.
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