Three-and-a-half years ago the legislature ratified the appointment of Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming (黃世銘), successor to former prosecutor-
general Chen Tsung-ming (陳聰明), who had been obliged to step down after being impeached by the Control Yuan. Huang was initially appointed for a four-year term.
As the end of his term approaches, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office Special Investigation Division (SID), which Huang heads, called a press conference in which it divulged, without the prior consent of those involved, the details of the transcript of a wiretapped telephone conversation between Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus whip Ker Chien-ming (柯建銘) and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平). During the press conference, it accused Wang of improperly influencing the judiciary in a case involving Ker on his behalf.
The Judicial Reform Foundation was established in 1995 with the goal of fighting corruption, interference and negligence in the judiciary. Counteracting abuse of privilege and improper influence falls within the scope of this goal. Therefore, within an hour of being informed about the SID’s accusations of improper influence, the foundation had issued a statement saying that anyone engaged in such activity should stand down.
On the same day, news came that then-minister of justice Tseng Yung-fu (曾勇夫) had resigned. Within a week, Wang had his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) membership revoked as a party disciplinary measure. The nation’s politicians became embroiled in the argument of whether he should also lose his position as a legislator-at-large.
When President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) called a press conference over the SID’s accusations, the transcript of the telephone conversation was the strongest piece of evidence to back up the allegations. Ma was criticized for snooping on a political adversary and this prompted concern that surveillance of the legislative branch by the executive branch was outside the executive’s constitutional powers. This issue needs to be seriously addressed for the consolidation of the nation’s democracy.
The players in this case are major political figures, so they should be well aware of the legal and political consequences should they become involved in exerting improper influence.
The way the SID has handled this case must come under scrutiny, because procedural justice is a fundamental requirement in a nation governed according to the rule of law.
Accusations of illegal and inappropriate actions by the SID include the following: First, it monitored a second party during its surveillance in an investigation. Second, the time over which the surveillance was conducted violated the principle of proportionality. Third, it revealed the contents of the surveillance to the public. Fourth, it conducted the investigation without the power of administrative oversight. Fifth, it released communication records without officially filing the case. Sixth, it publicly accused the people involved without giving them an opportunity to respond to the allegations.
These irregularities came about under the jurisdiction of the prosecutor-general. Aside from the prosecutors involved, the greatest responsibility for them falls on Huang as their director. Huang went to the Presidential Office to report the findings and it needs to be determined whether this was an illegitimate release of confidential information. The Control Yuan and the Prosecutor Evaluation Committee should look into this last matter immediately.
Huang generally brushes off any criticism, making it quite clear that he does not believe there is anything to be investigated. This has placed him and the SID in a precarious position.
When the SID was established in 2007, its primary responsibility was to investigate corruption among senior officials, but from the outset it focused on investigating corruption cases involving officials from the pan-green camp. Its tendency to concentrate on subjects from one end of the political spectrum caused experienced prosecutors to remind it not to focus on any particular group, something of a taboo for prosecutors.
Public trust in the division was seriously eroded because the courts returned not guilty verdicts for the vast majority of the cases the SID brought.
It was not long ago that a prosecutor-general was first asked to step down for leaking the details of an ongoing case; Chen, the first to be ratified for the position, was impeached by the Control Yuan in 2010. Unfortunately, should this happen in the current situation, the only person to pay the price will be Huang. Will the SID be able to continue in the same way after he has gone, should he be made to stand down?
Lin Feng-jeng is a lawyer and executive director of the Judicial Reform Foundation.
Translated by Paul Cooper