Four square meters. That is the size of former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) prison cell.
There are walls on each side and only one little window to let in sunlight. On the wall across from the window, there is a small opening with bars where at any time the guards can see what is going on in the cell. In the lower right corner of the wall there is a small hole, like a little rat hole; that’s where the prison food is delivered.
Prison representatives say the cell is 6m2, but Chen only has 4.3m2 because you have to deduct the space for the toilet, the water bucket and various other items. This is the home of the former president in Taipei Prison, and it is a double.
The toilet is not a squat toilet, nor is it a water closet, it is just a hole in the floor.
When Chen gets out of bed, he must squat over the hole to wash his face and brush his teeth.
To take a shower, he has to stand over the hole, one foot on either side, reach for the ladle in the bucket and pour the water over himself. To the left above the hole, there is a 24-hour security camera that records everything he does, even when he takes a shower or uses the toilet. There is no escape.
After deducting the space that is occupied by the latrine and miscellaneous items, the remaining space is shared by two people, which means they only get about 2m2 each.
In a space of just 2m2, Chen has to sleep on the floor, eat squatting on the floor, read sitting on the floor and write his articles lying on the floor. Although there is a thin wooden tiling, the winter cold seeps into the bones and Chen needs a thick quilt to keep warm and get to sleep.
When Chen talks about life in prison, his smile is marked by frustration and bitterness. His forehead and face are dark, lacking the radiance that was so often there in the past. When I ask him why his face is so dark, he says it’s sunburn.
In the past, he was only allowed out for half an hour a day, but after legislators and doctors started to express concern, that was increased to one hour a day, and he now gets as much sun as he can.
As a result of the concern shown by many legislators and physicians both in Taiwan and abroad, one month ago the prison administration finally placed a desk and a chair in the empty cell across from Chen’s cell. For the first time in four years of prison life, he can now sit down to eat his food and to write, although he is only allowed to use the desk for a few hours at a time.
When the time is up, he must return to his “presidential suite.”
Many visitors ask why the prison administration does not let Chen work in the prison factory, as “normal” criminals work there eight hours a day.
However, prison officials say it is because they cannot guarantee it will be safe. Safe for who? Are they afraid that he will organize the other prisoners and start a labor union?
Since Chen cannot work in the factory, with the exception of the one hour he gets to spend outside every day, he spends most of the time squatting on the floor in his 4m2 presidential suite.
At this point, I am filled with sorrow. I am closing my eyes (you should, too) and trying to imagine what it would be like to be locked up in a tiny bathroom with nothing but a toilet and trying to imagine how long I would be able to stand it. Probably not even an hour.
Chen has lived in this space for four years now. It is almost unbelievable that he hasn’t lost his mind yet.
Ko Wen-che (柯文哲), a doctor of thoracic surgery and trauma at National Taiwan University Hospital, talked about his examination of the former president.
Chen asked if he could get a physical examination at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital. When Ko asked why he wanted to go to that hospital, Chen said: “The last time I have slept in a bed was when I went to Taoyuan General Hospital for a check-up. I really want to sleep in a bed.”
As a result of having been locked up in a small dark space and lying on the floor for so long, the doctors at Taoyuan General Hospital and the doctors on Chen’s medical team followed up on the thorough medical check received at the hospital by saying that Chen had contracted several illnesses, including coronary artery problems, hyperlipidemia, prostate blood clots, gastroesophageal reflux disease, duodenal wall inflammation, rectal erosion, a collapsed left lower lung lobe, bleeding vas deferens, arthritis, autonomic nerve disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and major depression.
One of the members of the US team of human rights doctors that visited Chen, Ken Yoneda, said after the visit that he found it unimaginable that a former president would be locked up in a prison with such low living standards. Joseph Lin, another member of the team, said the environment in Chen’s cell was inhumane and that in addition to having been diagnosed with heart and gastroesophageal problems, Chen also said that he sometimes felt like he was choking and that he was about to die.
The US medical team concluded that Chen was suffering from serious physical and mental problems caused by long-term isolation, monitoring and stress and that he needed immediate and comprehensive medical treatment and an improved prison environment otherwise his health would continue to deteriorate.
On July 12, US senators Robert Andrews and Dan Lungren presented a report titled The Effects of Incarceration on the Mental and Physical Health of Former President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. The 24-page report strongly urged President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to grant medical parole to Chen on humanitarian grounds.
No democracy around the world would dare treat a former president in such a brazenly evil manner, even one guilty of committing a crime, and there are also many people who believe the trials that found Chen guilty were marked by judicial flaws and violations of the due course of law.
The presidency is a symbol of national dignity and honor. The Ma administration’s treatment of Chen not only tramples all over the presidency, national dignity, honor and democratic values, it is also a sign of fascist-style power struggle — using the state apparatus to suppress a political enemy.
After I finished the interview and said goodbye to Chen, I took two steps, and then turned around to look at him. I saw how he waved and touched his knee. It reminded me that he has developed joint problems in his fingers and his knees after spending such a long time writing lying on the floor. My head spun with emotions.
Walking out of the prison, something Ko had said rang in my ears: “Is it really in Taiwan’s best interest to let Chen die in prison?”
What kind of regime would let a former president suffer so much that he is on the verge of losing his mind and close to dying? What would make the incumbent president of a democracy treat a predecessor in this way? Is Ma a cruel person or is it that Taiwanese society itself is cruel and heartless?
Is Taiwan a civilized country or is it a country ruled by the law of the jungle? What does civilization even mean?
Some say the most fundamental standard for judging a civilization is how it treats its weak and disadvantaged. Aren’t we now mistreating a sick and weak former president?
Confused, angry and dejected, I continued down the streets of Taipei, scorching in the summer heat.
Michelle Wang is a political commentator.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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