The guilty verdicts handed down by Taipei District Court Judge Tsai Shou-hsun (蔡守訓) on Sept. 11 made Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) the nation’s first former president to be indicted and convicted.
However, legal experts have been quick to speak out about what they see as the many controversial aspects of the verdict.
The court sentenced Chen and his wife Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍) to life in prison and a combined fine of NT$500 million (US$15 million) after ther were found guilty of embezzlement, money laundering, corruption, forgery and other charges.
Chen has denied the charges and says the trial amounts to political persecution by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
The judges wrote in their ruling that Chen, as president, “for selfish reasons … used his power to create wealth while putting aside integrity and loyalty to the country.”
Quoting from ancient scrolls, the judges wrote that as president, Chen should have known that “if one person in power developed a greed for the people’s money, the entire country would devolve into chaos.”
Huang Jui-ming (黃瑞明), chairman of the Judicial Reform Foundation, said that the judges’ quotes from ancient literature evoked a hint of feudalism and the era during which local lords acted as the head of all households under their jurisdiction in an authoritarian manner, as opposed to the modern democratic society that Taiwanese now enjoy.
“[The judges] lectured Chen and his wife like parents scolding children,” Huang said.
Because a president is a public servant, he said, it is up to the people to criticize or praise their elected officials, not the courts, which should operate independently of politics.
Kao Yung-cheng (高涌誠), secretary general of the Taipei Bar Association, said that the way politics often gets in the way of the judicial process is a big problem in Taiwanese courts.
“Whether the defendant is a president or an ordinary citizen, a court should not make its decisions based on anything other than facts and evidence,” Kao said.
One of the things that highlighted the court’s inability to safeguard the defendant’s rights was its failure to ensure that they have enough time with their attorneys to prepare a proper defense, Kao said.
“[Pre-trial] detention should be a last resort,” he said.
Chen has been held at the Taipei Detention Center since Dec. 30. On Thursday, the Taiwan High Court ruled to extend his detention for three more months, with the term set to expire just before Christmas.
The court rejected the former president’s suggestions of alternative forms of detention, including confiscation of his passport, electronic monitoring, house arrest or restricting his visitors.
The High Court judges extended Chen’s detention because they said the crimes in question were serious and, as a former president, it would be easier for him to flee than an ordinary citizen.
Though the District Court repeatedly cited the fear that Chen would flee the country, collude with witnesses or destroy evidence, in its detention ruling, it also cited other reasons, such as that the crimes for which he has been accused of are serious crimes and that he has interfered with the judicial process by speaking to the media.
“The judges are worried that if they release Chen, he will speak to the media about his case, but the court has failed to take into account a serious infringement of Chen’s right to his own defense by not giving him enough time to adequately prepare for his trials,” Kao said.
If anyone other than Chen knows whether he has had enough time to prepare for the trials, it would be Tseng Te-rong (曾德榮), his court-appointed attorney at the District Court.
“We did not have enough time to get much of anything done,” Tseng said about his meetings with Chen at the detention center. “So when he appeared in court and was sitting next to me, I took the opportunity to talk to him about the case and quickly jot down notes.”
For Chen’s supporters, who protested and shouted profanities when the District Court repeatedly ruled to keep Chen detained, the High Court’s detention decision destroyed what little hope they had that Chen’s appeal would be successful.
Late on Thursday night, after Chen’s supporters outside the courthouse learned of the decision, they threw eggs and bottles of water to protest the ruling. Hundreds of police officers were mobilized to maintain order. Barricades and barbed wire lined the sidewalks to prevent protesters from entering the building.
Many legal experts are keeping a close watch on the process, including Judicial Reform Foundation executive director Lin Feng-cheng (林峰正).
“Pre-trial detention without due cause is a serious infringement of human rights, which is why it should be used as a last resort. If other methods are available to take the place of detention, they should be taken into consideration,” Lin said.
He criticized the High Court for using the fact that Chen has been charged with “serious offenses” as a reason for detaining him, saying this should not be a factor in deciding whether to detain someone.
He also criticized the District Court’s reasoning.
“The [District] Court’s decision to keep Chen detained because he ‘interfered with the judiciary’ was disappointing to Taiwan’s judicial reform,” Lin said, adding that the legal process was just as important as the final result.
There is no easy answer to whether the appeals court would be viewed as “more just” than the District Court based on its handling of Chen’s corruption trials.
In an opinion piece published in the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper), attorney Stephen Lee (李勝雄), who had represented Wu until February, wrote that in order to pass down a fair and just ruling, the High Court judges should follow a strict principle of innocent until proven guilty.
“Before the High Court begins the litigation process, [Chen] should be viewed as innocent and therefore, released without bail. If the court finds that [Chen] might flee, then the court should set a bail amount,” he wrote.
To ensure judicial independence from politics and other factors, appeals court judges should not be swayed by media reports, and should base all decisions solely on judgment of evidentiary support, Lee wrote.