The judiciary has often been criticized for not being politically color blind, with a number of indictments and rulings handed out by prosecutors and courts being perceived by the public as involving double standards.
Following an outpouring of public indignation last week over the sentencing of former Executive Yuan secretary-general Lin Yi-shih (林益世), which prompted heated discussion online with many netizens suggesting that possessing Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) membership offers better protection than any other lucky charm — another case late last week also stirred up controversy.
On Saturday, 72-year-old Peter Wang (王獻極) and 58-year-old Lai Fang-cheng (賴芳徵) were indicted by the Taipei Prosecutors’ Office on charges of violating the Assembly and Parade Act (集會遊行法) for allegedly throwing objects at President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) during his speech at the Jingmei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park late last year.
In their defense, Wang said his act of hurling a shoe at Ma was an act that should be protected under the right to freedom of speech, while Lai claimed that the papers he threw into the air were not directed at the president but at the event’s organizers.
Anyone guilty of a malicious action intended to cause bodily harm should rightfully be held accountable in accordance with the law. However, politicians being heckled by members of the public is not an uncommon sight in a democracy. Many may well recall the shoe-throwing faced by then-US president George W. Bush in December 2008 at a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq. So long as protesters harbor no intent to harm, government officials should be more open and receptive to public criticism and outrage, rather than automatically resorting to legal means that, in most cases — such as that of Wang and Lai — creates further public resentment and sows discord between the government and the public.
Ma’s predecessor, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), once said that people protesting and heckling politicians is a sign of a healthy democracy and even Ma previously said that “a head of state being heckled is not a big deal in a democratic society; there is no need to regard it as losing face.”
Many may recall how Ma, during his first presidential campaign in 2008, devoted a segment of his campaign platform to human rights, pledging to amend the Assembly and Parade Act and other laws if elected.
“There is a need to review the Assembly and Parade Act, the Civil Associations Act (人民團體法) and related laws so they can be updated to reflect the passage of time and be a positive force that propels society forward,” Ma said at the time.
Seven years have passed since Ma uttered those words and, in view of the indictment of Wang and Lai, it appears that the government still has lots to do to realize this promise.
The indictment also brought to mind the ruling handed down by the Taiwan High Court on April 8, 2010, finding Shih Ming-te (施明德) and 15 others responsible for leading red-clad protesters in a rally to oust Chen in late 2006 not guilty of violating the Assembly and Parade Act on the grounds that despite calls from police to end the rally, it was unlikely that the thousands of protesters participating could have dispersed in the amount of time allocated.
It seems paradoxical that those who led a large-scale illegal protest against the government were acquitted of violating the Assembly and Parade Act, while two elderly people who allegedly lobbed small objects at Ma were deemed guilty by Taipei prosecutors of violating the same law.
These different interpretations of the law reinforce not only the public’s perception that the judiciary applies double standards to those from the pan-blue and pan-green camps, but also demonstrates that the outdated law is itself riddled with problems.