EDITORIAL: A judiciary on life support

Sat, Nov 15, 2008 - Page 8

Over the last weeks one half of this nation’s political divide has watched with increasing nervousness at the trend of detaining Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) identities without charge in unrelated cases.

On its own, this development might have spoken more of rottenness in the opposition party than a systemic problem with the judiciary, and there is no shortage of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators who argue exactly this. The fact that former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has alienated long-time supporters has also allowed his arrest and detention to serve as fodder for his enemies and for anyone who acts as an apologist for judicial bias.

In the context of last week’s visit by Chinese envoys, however, and the mixture of incompetence and smugness with which the government has dealt with subsequent dissent, domestic and international attention on the judiciary’s ability to deliver justice impartially takes on more significance.

This attention can only become more marked if an inventory is drawn up showing the proportion of cases involving KMT figures that await action or that have been inexplicably abandoned.

The judiciary must retain or gain the confidence of a broad majority of Taiwanese — not just an electoral majority — for justice to be done and to be seen to be done. This will be difficult to achieve in the foreseeable future.

One of the legacies of autocratic rule is a lack of faith in juridical due process — and sometimes even a lack of awareness of its importance.

Democratization should have resulted in the rehabilitation of the judicial system’s credibility, but a lack of momentum for judicial reform and the gross politicization of key cases in recent years has hampered this work and made targets out of prosecutors and judges for both sides of the political spectrum.

The situation has not been helped by the ease with which influential people with current responsibility for judicial matters can produce comments of the utmost irresponsibility — and with impunity. These include the minister of justice and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) himself, who famously declared Chen to be corrupt during the “red shirt” protests — a defamatory act in the absence of evidence — and who subsequently declared his own corruption case to be politically inspired.

Chen’s claim this week that justice is “dead” and that his case amounts to political persecution might have been dismissed as self-interested nonsense were it not for the fact that senior KMT officials have been saying exactly the same thing for years.

The precedent had been set, and Chen has every reason to expect sympathy despite his stupidity — even moreso given that before his indictment prosecutors vowed to resign if they did not get their man, which was an intolerable attack on the presumption of innocence.

All of this reflects the corrosion that has afflicted the public sector under a KMT-dominated legislature and a yoked executive. The erosion of neutrality; a long legislative history of KMT encroachment on agencies that did not follow its party line; the formation of unconstitutional, Star Chamber-like legislative bodies that threatened to take Taiwan back 60 years — this is the mess that the KMT helped to create amid aborted attempts to build something better. And now, the man at the helm of the KMT while much of this took place is the nation’s president.