The other morning I opened The New York Times to the headline "Thailand's Junta Tries to Bury the Opposition in Endless Lawsuits." The story was referencing the civil takeover of that government by the military through institutions often hailed as bastions of democracy and stability -- the court system and regulatory agencies, specifically.
It's an example of a seemingly democratic government using any tactics available to stifle opposition, even those that are theoretically set up to preserve the diversity of political voices. The recent imprisonment of Chen Shui Bian, former President of Taiwan, is another one of those stories that fits into this narrative.
After leaving office, Mr. Chen was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the new president. While the charges brought were embezzlement and money laundering, Chen's real crime was the reforms that he had tried to implement and the corruption he had blocked while in office -- reforms that the new government directly opposed. Numbers tell the true nature of the manufactured crimes against him. Under Chen's eight years of presidency, many major infrastructure projects, such as Taipei 101, a new high-speed train system, a second north-south highway, a tunnel through central mountains (defying extreme engineering challenges), and reform of the banking systems, were all completed ahead of schedule and well under budget, saving the country several hundred billions of Taiwanese dollars.
After exhaustive investigation, the government could only find a rather obscure and irrelevant land deal to pin on Chen. On the other hand, under the Ma administration, the country is now heavily in debt, approaching or exceeding the Greece's level, while no major infrastructure projects could be named. The new Taipei mayor, Dr. Ko, has become a national hero for unsealing classified documents to reveal the real nature of corruption under his two predecessors, including the current president Ma.
The world owes Chen a rigorous legal review to see if he received a fair trial. Or is his case clear-cut political persecution? There are some more facts to ponder here. Within one hour after Chen left his office as President of Taiwan on May 20, 2008, an order was issued by the new administration to limit Mr. Chen's travel while an investigation into allegations that he had misused his presidential discretionary fund was carried out. Six months later, on Nov. 12, 2008, he was placed in custody before any charges were filed. Over the next two years of custody, he was denied bail nine times while uncountable new charges continued to be filed against him. He had no client-attorney privilege; all his conversations with his attorneys were monitored and recorded by the prison authority.
For Chen, in those two years, there were many verdicts reversed and new trials ordered, and he was also found innocent in some. Initially Chen was sentenced to life in prison in his discretionary fund case by the same judge who had acquitted Ma Ying-Jeou, the current president, for misuse of his Taipei Major discretionary fund. Ma deposited half of his discretionary fund to his wife's account over several years, but the judge cited the fund management in ancient China (Song Dynasty) to justify his ruling in acquitting Ma. Eventually Chen was found innocent in the retrial of the discretionary fund case by the lower court, but the Highest Court invalided the innocent verdict and ordered another new trial. On Nov. 11, 2010, Taiwan's Highest Court issued a direct ruling to sentence Mr. Chen to 17.5 years in prison for the land deal case mentioned above. Note that Taiwan's Highest Court had never before issued a direct verdict; usually it returns the case to the lower courts for a retrial or agrees with the lower court's ruling. The day before this direct verdict Ma had dinner with many top officials of the judicial and justice departments to convey his personal view on Chen's guilt. Was this a coincidence? Even worse, the guilty verdict is based on a newly invented legal theory that speculates that because Chen was the president, he must have had some influence over the land deal, even though there is no direct evidence to link him at all. See a detailed account of all courts cases against Chen here.
You could say that there is somewhat of a tradition of leaders going from prison to the presidency; from Nelson Mandela to Lech Walesa of Poland, the world has seen men go from solitary confinement to inaugural parades as the political landscape beneath them suddenly changes. There is less of a tradition of going from ruling the country one day to competing for sleeping space in an overcrowded prison cell the next.
Chen Shui Bian, who had been in charge of a country for nearly eight years, found himself suddenly in prison under bright lights 24 hours a day as he struggled to get used to the prison food and the cold, concrete ground that was his bed. He'd been a successful lawyer before taking his place at the helm of the country and had done everything in his power to push for Taiwanese independence, which was at the centerpiece of his administration.
After six years in prison, the lack of access to medical care began to take its toll. As Chen Shui Bian grew weaker and weaker, the Taiwanese government grew increasingly concerned about the political fallout that would result from him dying in prison. They released him on house arrest for a 30-day recuperation period, which has now been extended for another 90 days.
Chen Shui Bian walked out of prison on the day of his temporary release with his head held high, shaking hands concealed in his coat pockets. He now endures house arrest as he struggles to recover, and his fate remains unclear.
The circumstances of his charges and trial are murky, wrapped up in the politics that have consumed Taiwan since after World War II: Taiwan's relationship with China. I agree with Chen Shui Bian that Taiwan should have its shot at true independence from the snaking economic and political arms of China. His view more closely aligns with that of the young people in Taiwan today and offers Taiwan a clearer shot at economic and political prosperity.
You may not agree with me or with Chen Shui Bian. You may have an equally powerful and entirely different point of view. The point here is not to debate the validity of Taiwan's independence or lack thereof but to assert that Chen Shui Bian should not suffer any longer for his own political platform and beliefs, to argue that government institutions set up to protect diversity should not be used to stifle opposing voices, and to suggest that Chen Shui Bian, whatever his political positions, should not have to sacrifice his life because of a shift in the political winds sweeping across Taiwan.