The detention of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) yesterday on charges related to embezzlement of his “state affairs” fund and money laundering by the former first family is a landmark in Taiwan’s history — and a depressing one — because he became the first former president in the nation’s history to be incarcerated.
The circumstances of his detention, however, are controversial.
In applying for his detention, prosecutors have effectively said to judges that they have gathered enough evidence to charge Chen — evidence that presumably cannot be tampered with.
If, as prosecutors claim, they are worried about Chen colluding with potential co-defendants and destroying evidence, then it would have made more sense to detain him weeks ago rather than after all the potential leads prosecutors were following had been leaked to the media.
Handcuffing Chen was a strictly symbolic and possibly foolish move by the authorities. Chen knew the value of this symbolism when he raised his manacled hands above his head on his way to the courthouse.
Whether the former president’s arrest will lead to more protests against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government and the judiciary — which some are accusing of political persecution — is hard to foresee, because since the allegations of corruption against him surfaced, Chen has had a polarizing effect on the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), for which he had long been the standard bearer.
Nevertheless, it will be surprising if the string of arrests of current and former DPP government officials over the last few months fails to create some kind of reaction from opposition supporters.
When violence broke out during last week’s visit by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), many people expressed concern that it had harmed the nation’s image abroad.
But already many people and organizations, including some abroad, are beginning to express concern about these detentions and what they see as a disturbing pattern in the judiciary. If these concerns turn out to be valid, the repercussions could prove a lot more damaging to the nation’s international profile.
Chen’s detention could increase anxiety that Taiwan’s reputation as a country governed by the rule of law is being eroded, which could lessen international support and leave the government even more unpopular and isolated.
There have been mutterings that Taiwan is heading the way of Singapore. But while Singaporeans may be content with a ruling party that uses the judiciary to stifle opposition, Taiwan’s situation is altogether different. Singapore does not suffer an external threat to its democracy and survival as a country.
Taiwanese are not stupid. If they view the recent actions of the judiciary to be a threat to the rule of law and the democracy they fought so hard to obtain, they will use their ballots at the next election to boot out those responsible.
But if their concerns continue to be met with aloof regard by the authorities and antagonistic, sneering language by KMT legislators, then action could be swifter still.
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