Wed, Mar 27, 2002 - Page 1 News List

Trio cleared of slander charges

DEFAMATION SUIT A court determined allegations by New Party members that the former first lady fled the country after the 2000 presidential race with suitcases stuffed with cash were false, but the accused were released without punishment

By Jimmy Chuang and Lin Mei-chun  /  STAFF REPORTERS

The Taipei District Court yesterday cleared two former New Party lawmakers of defamation charges, saying comments by the pair that former first lady Tseng Wen-hui (曾文惠) tried to flee Taiwan with suitcases laden with cash after the 2000 presidential election didn't rise to the level of slander.

The court ruled that Elmer Feng (馮滬祥) and Hsieh Chi-ta (謝啟大) were not guilty of slander. Also found not guilty was their c0-defendant, Tai Chi (戴錡), a New Party member of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission.

Shortly after the 2000 presidential election, Feng and Hsieh said Tseng had attempted to flee to New York with US$85 million in cash stuffed into 54 suitcases, but was turned back by customs officials. Their comments were broadcast on TV.

But the judge in yesterday's ruling said the remarks didn't constitute a "malicious accusation."

The ruling said the lawmakers were casting "suspicion" on Tseng -- a right protected by legislative immunity under the Constitution, he said -- but the remarks were not a "malicious accusation."

The judge said Hsieh and Feng as lawmakers had the right to call into question anything they felt was a danger to national security or damaging to the country -- regardless of whether they possessed any evidence to support their claims.

As for Tai, the judge said there wasn't enough evidence to suggest he made the claim that Tseng fled to the US after the presidential contest. Unlike Hsieh and Feng, Tai's alleged remarks weren't reported by the media.

In throwing out the slander charges, the judge also dropped Tseng's NT$300 million claim for damages.

The judge also threw out the trio's counterclaims that Tseng had defamed them by filing the slander charges. In a ruling that appears to turn logic on its head, the judge said the counterclaims had to be dropped because there was no slander in the case.

Tseng has 10 days to appeal the ruling to the Taiwan High Court. The defendants can also appeal to have their counterclaims reconsidered.

The ruling shocked the Tseng camp, who thought they had a convincing case against Feng, Hsieh and Tai.

Tseng had testified that she was at home watching TV on March 19, 2000 -- not flying to New York. On March 21, Tseng and her family visited her son's grave on the 20th anniversary of his death.

On March 23 Tseng made her first public post-election appearance, when she was seen playing golf to counter the accusations she had left the country.

"Tseng said that she was pretty surprised when she heard the news," said Liu Tsung-hsin (劉宗欣), Tseng's lawyer.

"Since they were never able to provide any evidence to back themselves up ... how could they be not guilty of slander?"

Liu said an appeal was in the works.

TSU lawmakers also took issue with the ruling, in particular the comments from the judge that the participants in the dispute should set aside their differences for the sake of "ethnic harmony."

According to a statement released by the Taipei District Court, the judge said the "plaintiff should take into consideration national security and ethnic harmony" in deciding whether to file an appeal.

The lawmakers said only the merits of the case should be considered. "Judges should reach a verdict based solely on the law and the evidence. It's preposterous to reach a verdict with the an aim of preserving ethnic harmony," the lawmakers said.

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