By Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver SunSeptember 16, 2009
When a court in Taiwan imposes a life sentence, there is an automatic appeal to a higher panel of judges, but former president Chen Shui-bian and his wife Wu Shu-chen should not nurse too many hopes that the draconian penalties imposed on them last week will be moderated.
From the start, the campaign to prosecute Chen, who stepped down in May last year after two four-year terms as president, and his wife for corruption have not passed the smell test of a fair and independent judicial process.
Many people both in Taiwan and abroad have commented since the process began that it looks more like political persecution of Chen, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) promotes Taiwan as an independent nation, by the new Kuomintang (KMT) party of president Ma Ying-jeou than a genuine attempt to eradicate graft in high places.
Ma and the KMT, which for 50 years ran Taiwan as a one-party state under martial law until it was pushed by the United States into democratization in the late 1980s, have been edging Taiwan toward some kind of political union with China since they regained control of the administration in May last year.
In sentencing Chen and Wu to life in prison, the court has, doubtless inadvertently, presented Beijing with a gift and Taiwan's 23 million people a stern warning that they are not masters in their own house.
To put it bluntly, no convincing evidence was presented during the trial on which Chen could be convicted of corruption, embezzlement or money laundering by an impartial court, though that cannot be said of Wu, her brother or her children.
The campaign to prepare the expectation that Chen is guilty and would go to prison for a long time began during the investigation by prosecutors.
There was a steady stream of often scurrilous and insubstantial stories leaked to the media, whose proprietors are largely KMT supporters, spinning a web of guilt around Chen.
Chen was then held incommunicado for a month late last year before any indictment was presented. He was formally detained on Dec. 20 and when he applied for bail, was granted it.
But there was then an uproar by KMT legislators and a new judge was made head of the court. He is Tsai Shou-hsun, who, coincidentally no doubt, had recently found Ma not guilty of charges of, while mayor of Taipei, misusing discretionary funds, very similar charges that Chen faced.
Tsai immediately ordered Chen's pretrial detention to continue in case the former president tried to influence witnesses. And Tsai has presided over the trial and delivered the verdict.
And the documentation around these cases is so voluminous it smells of bafflegab.
The indictment is 202 pages in Chinese. The press release from the Taipei District Court announcing the verdict is 59 pages and this, apparently, is a prelude to the full 1,500-page judgment.
The first 190 pages of the indictment track the $30 million US in campaign donations and $15 million US in presidential discretionary funds on their way to accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland.
This is the money laundering case, but it is only a crime if the money was illegally obtained. And nowhere in the prosecution's case is there evidence that this money was got illegally. There's a lot of supposition and sly suggestion, but no evidence.
In Taiwan, election law says, despite efforts by Chen's administration to change it in the face of KMT obstruction, that leftover campaign donations belong to the candidate. And Chen dealt with the discretionary funds in exactly the same way as predecessors.
Chen says he left the family finances to Wu, who is known to be avaricious and has some reason to seek the security that money brings.
In 1986, Chen and Wu, while travelling around Tainan County thanking supporters, were attacked by a man driving a farm tractor. The driver missed Chen, but ran over Wu and a campaign aide. He backed up and drove over Wu again and then drove over her a third time.
Her back was broken and since then she has had to use a wheelchair. The driver was questioned by police, who concluded it was an accident, and no charges were laid.
There is little doubt that Wu received bribes in the case of land acquisition for a high tech science park.
But there was no evidence that she told Chen. Indeed, all the evidence says the couple has fallen out because Wu lied to her husband about what was going on.