When law enforcement officials began investigating Rebar Asia Pacific Group (力霸亞太企業集團) chairman Wang You-theng (王又曾) and his family members in the last week of December over the group's emerging financial scandal, they quickly learned that their quarry had flown the coop.
Immigration records showed that Wang had flown to Hong Kong on Dec. 30, with his wife Chin Shyh-ying (金世英) following on Jan. 1. The two were later spotted at a luxury hotel in Shanghai, media reports said.
Lin Jinn-tsun (
The couple were only the latest suspected or convicted criminals to escape justice by leaving the country, and follow in the footsteps of a veritable who's who list of notorious Taiwanese tycoons, such as Chu An-hsiung (朱安雄) and Tseng Cheng-jen (曾正仁).
Law enforcement officials immediately came under fire for failing to prevent the couple from leaving and forcing them to face judicial proceedings. But although the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) was quick to apologize, it isn't clear what it could have done to prevent Wang from leaving.
All law enforcement authorities face a difficult situation in preventing white-collar criminals from fleeing the country, as it often takes a lengthy, complex investigation to determine not only guilt, but also who the guilty party is. But Taiwan faces another challenge because of its constricted international status: Even if authorities are able to track down a suspect or a criminal abroad, it is nearly impossible to get him or her extradited.
Prosecutor Lin Bang-liang (林邦樑) with the Taiwan High Court Prosecutors' Office told the Taipei Times that it is always difficult for prosecutors to deal with cases such as that involving Wang.
He said Wang was alerted and left the country almost immediately after agents from the Ministry of Justice's Investigation Bureau (MJIB) began to contact his family members.
Prosecutors and MJIB agents must provide adequate evidence of possible wrongdoing before they are allowed to prohibit an individual from leaving the country, Lin said.
Therefore, Lin added, in this case, prosecutors had very limited time to gather concrete evidence before they could arrest Wang or ban him from leaving the country.
Another prosecutor from the Taiwan High Court Prosecutors' Office, Chou Chang-chin (周章欽), said that in practice it is difficult to effectively supervise suspects or convicted criminals if they have not been detained.
And Chou should know, having been a key player in what has now become an enduring symbol of how flaws in the nation's judicial system allow convicted criminals to roam free.
Chou, formerly a prosecutor with the Kaohsiung District Pros-ecutors' Office, and his colleagues were tasked with trying to find former Kaohsiung City Council speaker Chu An-hsiung and send him to prison in 2003.
Chu was convicted on charges of vote buying in September 2003 and sentenced to 22 months in jail. He was also a suspect in several other scandals, but because of a loophole in Taiwan's legal system, he was released on NT$5 million bail and given two months to put his personal affairs in order before reporting to prison.
Chu absconded to China before he was supposed to begin his jail term in October, despite efforts by law officials to monitor him.
The former speaker was hardly the only person to pull off such a brazen act.
Former chairman of the Tuntex Group Chen Yu-hao (陳由豪) was indicted in late 2003 on suspicion of embezzling NT$800 million from his firm. He fled to China and was eventually able to make his way to the US.
The two cases finally prodded the Executive Yuan in late 2003 to submit a draft amendment to the Criminal Code (刑法) that would prohibit convicted felons from leaving certain areas designated by the court while they wait for prosecutors to summon them or for their sentences to begin.
Seeking further control over convicted or suspected criminals, the MOJ in July 2004 also submitted a draft amendment to the Criminal Code. The MOJ's amendment requires district courts to immediately detain white-collar criminals or criminals charged with corruption as soon as they are found guilty in their first trial.
Both amendments to the Criminal Code have been waiting for legislative approval, although some legal experts and human rights activists criticize the proposals as an infringement on human rights.
But the larger problem remains this: if fugitives manage to leave the country and stay in a foreign country -- most likely China -- authorities have little chance of bringing them home.
While petty criminals and violent thugs have a chance of being deported to Taiwan by Chinese security services in accordance with the Kinmen Accord -- signed in 1990 as a mechanism by which cross-strait illegal immigrants and criminals can be returned to their point of origin -- few white-collar suspects or wealthy criminals are arrested in China and repatriated to Taiwan.
"They are the honored guests of Chinese officials because they carried their cashbox to China or have substantial business interests there," said Lin Ching-tsung (林慶宗), a prosecutor with the Kaohsiung branch of the Taiwan High Court Prosecutors' Office.
The official said because of the lack of official judicial cooperation with China, Taiwan is unable to ask Chinese to apprehend white-collar fugitives.
Therefore, China has became a "haven" for white-collar fugitives, Lin Ching-tsung said.
He then cited a list of such fugitives, such as Eddie Liu (劉偉杰), a former employee of the prominent legal firm Lee and Li Attorneys-at-Law. Eddie Liu embezzled NT$3 billion and fled to China in 2003.
The prosecutor also mentioned Liang Po-hsun (
However, the prosecutor said, Tseng Cheng-jen (曾正仁), the former president of the Kuangsan Enterprise Group (廣三集團) and former chairman of the board of the Taichung Business Bank (台中企銀), was sentenced to 11 years in jail in 2004 for an embezzlement scandal involving his bank before he escaped to China.
And, of course, there was Chu An-hsiung, Chen Yu-hao and now Wang You-theng.
Lin said it becomes even more difficult to bring white-collar fugitives back to face justice if they have dual nationality.
Chen's US citizenship and Taiwan's lack of an extradition treaty with the US make it impossible to extradite Chen, Lin Ching-tsung added.
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