Jury still out on Taiwan’s judiciary

By Mark Kao  / 

Mon, Aug 13, 2012 - Page 8

Taiwan is by all accounts a vibrant democracy, but if it wants to safeguard its liberty and freedom, it urgently needs significant judicial reform.

The nation’s democratic transition occurred more than 20 years ago, yet the judicial system still reflects many traits dating back to the days of martial law, when Taiwan languished under one-party domination of the Chinese National Party (KMT). Significant improvements were made in the early 1990s, especially under the governments of presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), but many feel there has been a regression since 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office.

Although the courts often show their political bias, there have been some positive developments, such as the cases of former National Science Council vice minister Shieh Ching-jyh (謝清志), former deputy foreign minister Michael Kau (高英茂) and former National Security Council secretary-general Chiou I-jen (邱義仁), who were recently acquitted. The fact that they were declared not guilty is gratifying, but it came at a cost of years of costly legal proceedings.

The problem of political bias lies with the prosecutors, and especially with the Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. Not only does the organizational structure make them vulnerable to political influence, but for far too long individuals who occupy these positions have been supporters of the KMT. Their allegiance to the ruling party has guaranteed them their perks and positions.

This political bias is evident from the eagerness with which the prosecutors go after present and former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials, and their reluctance to investigate KMT officials, especially those in high places.

In December last year, when DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was pulling ahead of Ma in the race for the presidency, the SID suddenly opened an investigation into the 2007 involvement of Tsai in the Yu Chang Biologics Co, a highly successful biotech company which is developing medicine for the treatment of AIDS. That this investigation happened less than a month before the elections was of course no coincidence. The SID also made sure the press received all the necessary information to write sensationalized articles.

By contrast, in June of this year, Next Magazine published charges that Cabinet secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世) was involved in corrupt dealings, the SID moved slowly and gingerly. It did arrest Lin, question and detain him, but observers in Taiwan indicate that the investigation has dragged on for weeks and express doubt that the probe into the financial dealings of Lin, who has long been a confidant of Ma, is thorough enough.

Making its political bias even more evident, on July 31, the Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Justice (MJIB) suddenly launched a major investigation into the involvement of the DPP Chiayi County Commissioner Helen Chang (張花冠) and her predecessor, Chen Ming-wen (陳明文), in the Dapumei herbal medicine biotech park project. The investigation stems from the period 2004 to 2006. That it suddenly pops up now does not seem to be a coincidence. It is clearly designed to draw attention away from the Lin Yi-shih corruption case.

What can be done? The people of Taiwan need to voice their concerns and ensure that there is a movement towards a fair and balanced judicial system in which people can expect a fair trial with no political interference.

Judicial reform is essential if Taiwan wants to safeguard its hard-won freedom and democracy.

Mark Kao is president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs.