FORMAL TRIAL PROCEEDINGS against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) commenced shortly before the Lunar New Year. The case has attracted attention from abroad because the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is seen to be using it as a means to exact retribution on its political opponents. The classic signs of a political vendetta — media leaks, trial by publicity, presumption of guilt and a failure to observe procedural justice — are plain for all to see.
However, anyone who stands up and says anything about Chen’s judicial rights is immediately accused by the pro-KMT pan-blue media of trying to shield the corrupt. Even the judge who ruled that it was not necessary to keep Chen in detention has been called a stooge of the former president. Any upstanding member of the legal profession who so much as questions the justice of the case is immediately labeled pan-green, or even accused of getting something from Chen in return. The media’s one-sided treatment of the case has imposed on Taiwan an atmosphere in which people are afraid to speak their minds.
If the KMT and the pro-blue media believe their own assertions, how can they explain the series of open letters signed by a long list of overseas academics, raising doubts about the handling of the Chen case? The letters were signed by two dozen learned people from abroad, including John Tkacik, Arthur Waldron, June Teufel Dreyer, Stephen Yates, Gordon Chang (章家敦) and Nat Bellocchi. The writers voiced their suspicion that the corruption cases now under way are aimed solely at Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and allied politicians, while overlooking corruption among KMT figures. The letters speak of the “erosion of the judicial system in Taiwan” and warn the KMT against taking Taiwan “backwards to the unfair and unjust procedures as practiced during the dark days of Martial Law.”
Most of the signatories are respected specialists in various aspects of Taiwan-China relations, who would hardly put their reputations on the line by showing bias in favor of a particular political figure. Working as they do in different places — the US, Canada, Australia and other countries — they nevertheless share similar views on the conduct of the Chen case, prompting them to pen their names to the joint open letters. Pan-blue adherents may wish to classify these overseas academics as being pan-green, too, but how can they explain why Ma’s former teacher, professor Jerome Cohen, has also criticized the conduct of the Chen case as unjust?
Cohen was Ma’s professor when he was studying for a doctorate at Harvard. Media reports said Cohen offered advice to Ma when he became KMT party chairman and when he was running for president. When questions were raised as to whether Ma had acted as a paid government informer when he was studying abroad, Cohen spoke out on Ma’s behalf several times. After Ma’s inauguration, he invited Cohen to visit him at the Presidential Office. Cohen, a renowned jurist and expert on Chinese affairs, recently published an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post under the title “Chen judges bungle their chance.” In the article, Cohen raised serious questions about the legal process, the presumption of innocence, the conduct of the prosecution and the independence and impartiality of Taiwan’s judiciary.
The pan-blues may even try to characterize Cohen as a pan-green supporter, but they would find it hard to explain the contents of an editorial entitled “A calm look at the controversy over pre-trial detention” that recently appeared in the pro-blue China Times. The editorial asserts that “the existing system of pre-trial detention is dominated by the authoritarian notion that anyone accused of a crime should be arrested and locked up straight away,” and that whether a suspect is presumed to be guilty or innocent “marks the dividing line between a police state and a democratic country.” The stance of the editorial is very clear, stopping only one step short of saying that Ma’s government has turned Taiwan into a police state.
The two dozen academics and experts who signed the open letters and Ma’s mentor Cohen all agree that the conduct of the Chen case has been unjust. They do not seek to shield the corrupt, nor are their comments irrational. On the contrary, they have spoken out precisely because they are concerned for the truth and for judicial and human rights in Taiwan. Their purpose is, as the China Times editorial said, “to prevent anyone from being deprived of his or her constitutional right to due judicial process.”
If government authorities are allowed to trample on the rights of Chen today, they may abuse their powers with regard to anyone tomorrow.
In his conclusion, Cohen raised doubts that the defendants in the Chen cases could receive a fair judgment. That is why Max Chiang (江建祥), a Taiwanese lawyer practicing in the US, suggested that Chen should refuse to recognize the court and should remain silent, as is his right, on the grounds that the judges have acted unconstitutionally.
It would be meaningless for them to present any kind of defense, because the demand for the most severe penalty is already written into the indictment and it is in effect only a matter of waiting for instructions from the government as to how many years the accused will be sentenced to spend in jail. Each time he appears in court, Chen will merely be playing a walk-on part in a stage show whose script has already been written.
Cao Changqing is a writer based in the US.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG