This author had the honor of being invited to attend the official online launch of the Transitional Justice Commission’s Taiwan Transitional Justice Database on Feb. 26.
The database has collated records of about 10,000 political victims from during the martial law era. It is the result of more than a year of gathering political archives, statistics and the names and numbers of those prosecuted; identifying the names, ranks and titles of the military judges and prosecutors at the trials; and assigning each a number so that they could be entered in the database.
Of those who were prosecuted, about 5,500 were Taiwanese, while 4,300 were Mainlanders.
Then-president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) presided over 3,195 trials — the most of any individual official — followed by then-chief of general staff Chou Chih-jou (周至柔), who presided over 2,506, and then-navy commander Kuei Yung-ching (桂永清), who presided over 1,241.
As the number of people placed under surveillance or prosecuted in military trials is estimated to be more than 18,000, the database is likely to expand.
Still, the database is an impressive achievement that was made possible with the assistance of the commission’s National Archives Administration and the Ministry of Culture’s National Human Rights Museum.
It is a testament to the fact that President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) “framework legislation” for transitional justice is advancing in the right direction.
The launch event also invited writer Lu Chien-hsing (呂建興), pen name Lu Yu (呂昱), who was previously imprisoned for his involvement in the Unity Foundation case.
Lu said that, even though he was released from prison more than three decades ago, it was only through the database that he learned his case had a total of 16 hearings, during which there were two major interventions.
The first intervention came when Ministry of National Defense officials threw out his initial sentence of 15 years in prison and ordered a retrial, while the second was when the final deliberation involved the input of the Presidential Office.
Although the database remains quite limited, what is there certainly evokes that era.
It fills out some of the background of the Unity Foundation case.
The majority of those involved in the case were students aged 18 to 25 at the time of their prosecution.
Most of the political prosecutions at the time were categorized as involving the independence movement or espionage on behalf of the Chinese communists, but the indictment for the Unity Foundation case gave the purpose of the trial — in which Hsu Hsi-tu (許席圖) and several accomplices were named — as being to “destroy the communist regime” in China and “oppose the independence movement” in Taiwan.
The indictment said it was brought to frustrate an attempt to “overthrow the government.”
The trial showed that the mental condition of Hsu, who was named as the ringleader, had deteriorated as he sat in prison awaiting trial, to the extent that, according to the law, the trial should have been stopped.
Chiang, who was presiding over the retrial, dismissed this notion outright, saying: “Regardless of whether the principal offender, Hsu Hsi-tu, is schizophrenic, he nevertheless remains the principal offender, and there is no need to halt the trial, and he should receive the death penalty, with the others heard as Case A.”
In Case A, Chiang thought that Lu, Chou Shun-chi (周順吉) and Chuang Hsin-nan (莊信男) should be sentenced to life imprisonment, while the defendants in Case B — being less complicit, but “failing to demonstrate any sign of repentance” — deserved 15 years in prison.
There are still those in Taiwan who say, when discussing the subject of transitional justice, that during the Martial Law era, the actions taken by the authorities were necessary to resist the Chinese communists and to protect national security, and that if certain people were consequently denied their rights, that was unfortunate, but unavoidable.
However, these historical records amply demonstrate that the police resorted to trickery to extract forced confessions and used the confessions as evidence of guilt.
The police used such confessions to cook up a false case against Hsu. The records show that if Hsu was not mentally ill, he was in dire straits, but, despite his mother’s pleas and strong protestations, Chiang demanded the death penalty for him.
Regardless of what eventually happened to Hsu, were these actions necessary and unavoidable?
If the nation is to prevent miscarriages of justice carried out by authoritarian regimes from happening, Taiwanese must expose and deplore such actions, not walk away or turn a blind eye.
Chen Yi-shen is president of the Academia Historica.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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