The Harvard Law School mentor of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said yesterday that his former student needed to act urgently to prevent an “increasingly disturbing circus atmosphere” from prejudicing his predecessor's right to a fair trial.
Jerome Cohen's comments to The Associated Press follow last week's biting skit that mocked former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), performed by prosecutors at a dinner celebrating “Law Day,” which was attended by Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng (王清峰), judges and other members of the legal community.
The skit made fun of Chen at the time of his arrest on graft charges in November, with a woman depicting him waving his handcuffed hands in the air and complaining about police brutality and judicial persecution.
At least one of the prosecutors appearing in the skit is involved in the continuing investigation of Chen.
Chen goes on trial tomorrow on charges of money laundering, bribery and looting a special presidential fund. While admitting his family wired more than US$20 million to overseas bank accounts under its control, he said the money was unused campaign contributions that under Taiwanese law are his to deal with freely.
Cohen, now a law professor at New York University, is one of the world's foremost experts on legal systems in Taiwan and China. He mentored Ma three decades ago at Harvard and they remain close. They last met in the presidential office in Taipei on Dec. 16.
In a telephone interview with AP, Cohen called performing the skit “unthinkable.”
“It is as if there are people trying to repudiate all the progress that Taiwan has made over the past 15 years,” he said, referring to Taiwan's gradual transition from dictatorship to multiparty democracy.
Cohen said Ma should move swiftly to force Wang to clarify remarks she made in defense of the skit, including her characterization that it was “just a little performance reflecting on current affairs.”
“If he doesn't get this, who in Taiwan can get it?” he said.
Presidential Office Spokesman Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) said Ma would not intervene with the justice minister on Chen's trial.
“President Ma Ying-jeou's stand is that he respects the judiciary and he does not interfere with individual cases,” he said.
There is “an increasingly disturbing circus atmosphere” surrounding the Chen trial that includes not only the mounting of the skit, but also a decision by a Taipei court to reverse its decision and order Chen jailed pending his trial, Cohen said.
Chen was originally locked up for 32 days to allow prosecutors to build their case against him, then ordered freed on his own recognizance by the court. However, he was returned to jail on Dec. 29 after a new panel of judges heard the prosecutors' second appeal against him.
Cohen said Ma's handling of Chen's case revealed an apparent choice to placate the extremist wing of his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rather than reaching out to the broad political middle.
“He's acting like [US President George W.] Bush in catering to the most right-wing conservative elements,” he said.
Presidential spokesman Wang rejected that characterization.
“[Ma's] hands-off policy has irritated some party members who hoped he could deal with the Chen case more aggressively,” he said.
“So it is incorrect to say that President Ma is trying to placate some party members with the way he is treating the Chen case,” Wang said.