Anti-corruption drive renewed

UNDERWORLD POLITICS: A culture of bribery and the large number of convicted criminals among the island's lawmakers is an accepted fact of life for many, but new laws and renewed zeal by the Judicial Yuan offer some hope for radical change

By Irene Lin  /  STAFF REPORTER

Mon, Jan 24, 2000 - Page 4

It's a widely known fact in Taiwan that corruption and crime are ways of life for many of the public's elected representatives. So, it came as some surprise when the Judicial Yuan boldly released its database of charges brought against as many as 205 elected representatives last October.

The politicians on record -- including National Assembly deputies, legislators, city and county councilors and township commissioners -- have been charged with a variety of offenses, from felonies such as murder and abduction, to misdemeanors such as slander and breach of assembly law.

Arguably, these people cannot be called criminals until their final convictions. But even more worrying is the real mafia among those public representatives have not even been named in the record, according to analysts.

Chen Dung-sheng (陳東升), a sociology professor at National Taiwan University, said Taiwan's gangster organizations have a notable interest in running for public office, and they have a significant presence in the legislatures at both local and central levels.

"Actually, there are more mafia representatives at the local rather than the central level. But the harm done by those in the central legislature is far greater than by those local representatives."

LEGAL CHANGE

On the last day of the legislative session on Jan. 15 the legislature passed an amendment to detention rules. The amendment, which gives the courts power to re-detain a person, is widely tagged as a "rule for Wu Tse-yuan" (伍澤元) -- an independent legislator whose controversial release on medical grounds has highlighted a loophole in the detention rules.

Wu, former Pingtung County commissioner, was convicted on charges of corruption and sentenced to 15 years in prison by the Taiwan High Court in 1996, with a right to appeal.

In March of 1998, Wu was released from detention under "mysterious circumstances," according to critics, on a NT$3.6 million bail, ostensibly for medical treatment. Soon after he was released, Wu was able to run a lively campaign for the legislative elections and was elected in December 1998.

Despite widespread criticism over Wu's release, the court was unable to re-detain him under the old detention rules. To this day, Wu is still appealing his 1996 conviction and chances are that he can remain free as long as the process of appeal continues.

Ever since Wu began his election campaign there have been increasing calls for amendments to the detention rules. This was also a reaction to a long existent problem, which is that a large proportion of local-level public representatives have run election campaigns after being released from detention.

The new rules make it possible for the court to restrict what activities a suspect can do after he is released from detention. If the restrictions are not followed, the court can re-detain the suspect.

Moreover, the suspects charged with felonies punishable by the death penalty or a life sentence are subject to stricter rules. That is, the court can re-detain them as soon as grounds for their previous release do not sustain anymore.

Passed at the last minute by the legislature, the new detention rules are seen as a first remedy to the country's political ills. Another possible remedy emerged when the Ministry of Justice recommended an amendment to the election law last week to restrict the chances of mafia members running for elections.

Under the existing rules, those who are appealing conviction can still run for public office. As a result there is the phenomenon widely seen on this island, of public representatives who have been convicted but are still appealing to higher court.

The Justice Ministry, coincidentally, uses Wu as an example of this kind of representative to highlight loopholes in the existing rules. It has thus recommended that anyone having been convicted of a crime, which is punishable by death, life, or above ten-year imprisonment, be prohibited from running for any public office, whether appeals continue or not.

While law-enforcement officials themselves have high expectations for these legal changes, critics cast doubts over their impact on the mafia politics of Taiwan.

"What could the changes do with people who are mafia leaders but have never had criminal charges brought against them?" said DPP legislator Chiu Tai-san (邱太三), who was a convener of the judicial committee of the legislature last session.

"It might help deter some bad guys from running for public office. But it can do nothing about the mafia leaders whose election is secure as long as they have got the money and the power," Chiu said. "As far as I'm concerned, vote-buying is everything that makes our political environment such a mess."

"We're assured from time to time that the government is doing something to fight election bribery. But the result is that we've always been disappointed and now I don't even have the minimum of faith in pledges of this kind," Chiu said.

VOTE BUYING

Justice Minister Yeh Chin-fong (葉金鳳) has recently talked about law-enforcement achievements in cracking down on election bribery. Over 9,000 people have been prosecuted for taking or giving bribes during election campaigns since 1993, she claimed. This figure, however, does not entail it was a result of the government's determination to crack down on election bribery, critics said.

"I was a prosecutor before and I know prosecution doesn't imply determination. The real determinant is how the prosecutor wins a conviction in the particular case," Chiu said.

The conviction rate in election briberies is too low in this country and too few elected public representatives have ever been found guilty of bribery. The more evidence the prosecution can present to court, the more secure is the chance of conviction. Nevertheless, most of those charged with election bribery have been acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

"The Justice Ministry is responsible for that," Chiu said. "The low conviction rate is expected as the prosecutors don't do enough to collect the evidence. And the real irony to me is the ministry has been producing a sort of certificate by which these mafia can assert their `innocence.'"

It is not unusual for those from the prosecutorial system to face such stinging criticism as that from Chiu. They do feel that, however, the general public does not assess their work fairly.

"It's not an excuse but a matter of fact that tracking the act of election bribery is extremely difficult," said Yen Da-ho (顏大和), director of the department of prosecutorial affairs, under the justice ministry.

Yen said vote-buying often takes the form of oral agreements, without any written records. And the bribe money can easily be disguised as personal loans, he said.

"It's a double standard that the public is taking. When it comes to their own cases, they would request the application of fairly strict rules."

But when it comes to others' cases, such as those of election bribery, they don't think evidence is so important."

HOPE FOR CHANGE

A recent survey by the Common Wealth Magazine shows that "black gold" politics has become the evil most resented by Taiwan people. One out of every four respondents thinks it is disgraceful to live in Taiwan, where the political and economic environment has been "polluted" by increasing numbers of unscrupulous politicians.

Four years ago, the creation of the Organized Crime Prevention Act (組織犯罪防制條例) was expected to be able to deter the country's mafia from tampering with politics and to bring forth prospects of a healthy democracy.

At the time the act was passed by the legislature high expectations were raised that convicted politicians would not be able to run for office.

The act also imposes liabilities on a party whose nominees are convicted of any crime stipulated by the act, for five years after the nomination.

The law itself looks powerful, but it needs effective implementation, critics have pointed out. The issue of black gold politics has been central to any discussion of the political environment in Taiwan. Sadly, the frequent pledges of the government have been perceived as nothing more than campaign slogans.

"At first it was frustration that I felt with the government's inaction. Now I feel not only frustrated but I am bored with the promises that are made but never carried out," Chiu said.

Disappointed as many people might feel, there are still optimists who are looking for ways to make the government more open, honest and accountable.

"The first step is to have the citizens take an active part in the democratic process," Chen Dung-sheng said. "Let them know they can have a say in issues that concern them. Through this some of them might find themselves talented at dealing with public issues."

Chen said the public should be encouraged to take part in community activities or other grassroots actions. Public forums or meetings of local government also offer opportunities for the public to have a voice.

"The more deeply they care about society, the less likely it is their electoral decisions will be bought off," Chen said.