Trust diminishing for judiciary

By Chang Kuo-tsai 張國財  / 

Sat, Jan 26, 2013 - Page 8

Yunlin County Commissioner Su Chih-fen (蘇治芬) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) found herself under investigation by the Yunlin County Prosecutors’ Office on Nov. 4, 2008. She was detained — without a summons having first been issued — on suspicion of having accepted bribes.

On April 28, 2011, Su was found not guilty in the court of first instance, a ruling that was upheld in a second trial on Aug 31 last year.

Prosecutors then brought the case before the Supreme Court, which threw out their appeal on Jan. 10 this year, upholding the not-guilty verdict.

The prosecutor responsible for the case, Lee Peng-cheng (李鵬程), has since been transferred to the Chiayi District Prosecutors’ Office, from where he has made it clear, via a spokesperson, that he has no comment to make concerning the case.

It seems that Su’s case has been laid to rest, but is this the last we will hear of it? Is it to leave no ripples in its wake?

Su was in trouble from the start. Prosecutors initially sought a custodial sentence of 15 years and the removal of her civil rights for eight years, because of alleged violation of the Anti-Corruption Act (貪污治罪條例).

She faced charges brought against her by prosecutors wishing to bring her down, and it is well known that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) exercises considerable influence over the courts.

Given these unfavorable conditions, Su could not have won the case with her reputation untarnished had the court been able to find a flaw in her defense. Despite the odds being set against her, the judges during each of the three trials reached the same conclusion and rejected the prosecutors’ indictments.

What were the prosecutors in the original investigation up to? Were they playing games? Did they level accusations against Su without evidence to back them up? Did they just cobble together witness testimonies and material evidence in the hope that if they threw them all at Su, something might stick? Or worse, was some of their witness evidence falsified?

Now Su has obtained a final not-guilty verdict, proving her innocence, how can prosecutors make up for the unjust treatment she received?

The image of Su surrounded by prosecutors’ office agents as they took her into custody is still fresh in the public’s mind, as is the image of her holding her cuffed hands aloft in protest as she was taken to hospital while on hunger strike.

The doubts and suspicions raised over the past four years regarding Su’s reputation and her personal integrity — not to mention other intangible consequences, such as the physical and psychological stress to which she has been subjected on an almost daily basis — have surely taken their toll. She will recover, but scars are sure to remain.

The prosecutor’s announcement that he had no comment to make about the case will certainly not help the pain go away.

If prosecutors can so easily take an elected county commissioner away in handcuffs and trample over her dignity and human rights, what chance do ordinary people have? Who will protect their rights and dignity in such circumstances?

After having had spurious charges laid against her, it took more than 1,000 days for Su’s name to be cleared. What if she had been an ordinary member of the public? Would she have had the same outcome? What if the verdict had gone the other way? Would Su just have had to accept it, knowing she had been found guilty of something she had not done? What other option would she have had?

How can we put a stop to this kind of thing? How can we prevent the judiciary from trampling on people, wronging and cheating them? How can the system be salvaged?

Su has been put through the mill for more than four years finally to be found innocent of all charges. If she decides to claim state compensation for false imprisonment, will it take another four years of legal wrangling before she can get it? Life is short; who can afford to spend so many years wrestling with the law?

As the public sees it, prosecutors often grasp at shadows, detain people first, then find evidence to fit the charges later, and also dance to the tune of a certain political party.

If prosecutors do not change their attitude, the presumption of innocence will be replaced by the presumption of guilt, and the idea that it is better to let 100 guilty people go free than execute a single innocent one will get turned on its head.

Instead of following the legally correct procedure of relying on witness statements and material evidence, prosecutors in Taiwan act more like judicial thugs working for political ends.

When they are investigating someone belonging to their favored party they build a firewall around the case, keeping everyone in the dark on the grounds that investigations should not be made public.

However, when they are investigating those belonging to the other side they subject them to trial by media, freely discussing every detail of the ongoing investigation.

There is a long way to go before Taiwan’s judiciary can be said to be fully free from political interference.

Do prosecutors really have the right to lay charges at will against anyone they want to detain?

If ordinary members of the public throw around false accusations they risk being prosecuted for slander or libel. What about prosecutors? What laws exist, if any, by which charges of false prosecution or false imprisonment can be brought against prosecutors when they detain and indict people on trumped-up charges?

A number of DPP politicians have been prosecuted on charges of corruption, but the vast majority of them have been found innocent –– has any prosecutor ever faced charges of false imprisonment or false indictment as a result?

Given this sorry state of affairs, it is clear who is to blame for the fact that Taiwanese have so little trust in the judiciary.

Chang Kuo-tsai is a former deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors.

Translated by Paul Cooper