Passing his days in the Taipei Detention Centre must bring an awful sense of déjà vu to Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-bian. He spent eight months there in 1986 as a young democracy campaigner for publishing an article critical of a professor with close links to the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT).
A lot has changed since those one-party days and Taiwan has been proclaimed a beacon of democracy and rule of law in the region. After more than half a century in power, the old, corrupt KMT was voted out in 2000, and a renewed KMT re-elected last year under President Ma Ying-jeou.The fact that a former president could be tried for corruption has also been hailed by some as evidence of the impartiality of Taiwan’s judicial system.
But looking at the specifics of the case, a lot of Taiwan watchers are concerned. The principal reason is that Mr Chen is in jail, yet has not been found guilty yet. He and a number of former colleagues in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been held in “preventive detention” while their cases are investigated and there are allegations of mistreatment in custody.
This and other concerns were raised in several open letters written in November last year to Taiwan’s Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng, signed by 22 international scholars and published in the Taipei Times. The letters stated that when present and former DPP officials were detained, they were interrogated for up to 20 hours without being formally charged.
They said that when those detained held discussions with their lawyers, these were recorded and videotaped, with the information then given to their respective prosecutors, violating the lawyer–client privilege.
They said prosecutors have continuously leaked information about the proceedings leading to a “trial by press”, compromising the defendant’s right to a fair trial and giving “the distinct impression that the Kuomintang (KMT) authorities are using the judicial system to get even with members of the former DPP Government”.
Elected president in 2000, Mr Chen moderated his pro-independence stance, made concessions to the new opposition and cut his own salary in half. Carrying the nation’s hopes for a new era of clean government, his popularity soared.
But things started to go wrong. Mr Chen’s overt moves towards further autonomy infuriated China and caused headaches for the US, Taiwan’s main ally, as tension across the Taiwan Strait grew. His policy initiatives were also continually blocked by a KMT-dominated legislature, leading to a political stalemate that quickly took the shine off Taiwan’s new democracy.
His popularity plunged in May 2006 when his son-in-law was arrested for insider trading and embezzlement. Mr Chen was alleged to be an accomplice but was protected by his immunity as president.
Mr Chen and his wife resigned from the DPP on August 15, 2008. He stated: “Today, I have to say sorry to all of the DPP members and supporters. I let everyone down, caused you humiliation and failed to meet your expectations. My acts have caused irreparable damage to the party. I love the DPP deeply and am proud of being a DPP member.”
Taiwanese society now simmers with hatred for Mr Chen borne of dashed hopes and frustration with politics. That frustration extends to former supporters of Mr Chen, including freelance journalist Lu Caiqian, who is following the case closely.
“These days, a lot of people really hate Chen Shui-bian and I do too,” Ms Lu said, “because he harmed the solidarity of people who love Taiwan and turned back the progress of Taiwan’s democracy.”
But she still believes he has not been given a fair trial owing to a judicial apparatus and media that has been heavily stacked in favour of the KMT since 1947.
“In 2000 the corrupt KMT had almost gutted Taiwan, empty and widespread dissatisfaction gave Chen the chance to get elected. But after his election, the entrenched forces turned against him and sealed off the media, causing his support to fall.
“Now, whenever something benefits Chen, like when he was set free, all the media and Parliament denounce it.”
The trial continues and Mr Chen is as defiant as always, calling his arrest “political persecution” and going on a hunger strike in prison.
He now has plenty of time to reflect on how it has all gone full circle.