TAIPEI, Taiwan — During his eight years as Taiwan’s president, Chen Shui-bian developed a reputation as a speaker impossible to ignore. Holding forth at campaign rallies and before visiting reporters, he vexed Beijing with his advocacy of Taiwanese independence and riveted Washington, which saw him both as democratic pioneer and mercurial troublemaker.
Now four years into a 20-year prison term for corruption, the words do not come so easily for the 62-year-old former lawyer, the first and only opposition figure to ever win the presidency here. He stutters, pauses and has a hard time coming up with the names of simple things like fruits and body parts. “He knows it’s for eating, but it took him 25 seconds to say ‘banana,’ ” said Chen Shun-sheng, a neurologist and supporter, as he reviewed video of a speech test that called on the former president to identify images on flashcards. “He couldn’t name the nose.”
Always divisive in office, Chen Shui-bian is now a center of controversy in prison, as an emotional debate unfolds on this self-governing island over whether he should be granted medical parole. It is a question that provokes sharp reactions, reflecting lingering divisions over Mr. Chen’s tarnished legacy as the activist lawyer who was jailed by Taiwan’s old authoritarian government — and then went on in 2000 to unseat the Nationalist Party that had governed the island since the end of World War II.
A hero to some and a fool to others for championing Taiwanese independence in the face of threats from China, Mr. Chen spent the final years of his presidency fending off corruption allegations. After he lost presidential immunity when his second term ended and the Nationalists returned to power, prosecutors convicted him of money laundering and accepting bribes worth about $17 million. He still faces additional charges.
From the start, Mr. Chen’s defenders presented him as a victim of his political enemies, raising questions about the fairness of his trial and criticizing conditions in prison, where at first he was held in a small cell without a bed and permitted only an hour of exercise per day. In the face of extensive evidence, though, much of the public has been persuaded of Mr. Chen’s guilt. Still, how the former president should be punished remains a subject of contention.
Mr. Chen’s family and supporters say his incarceration has led to a marked physical decline. On June 2, he attempted to hang himself with a towel in a shower in prison, according to Ministry of Justice officials. A guard intervened before he suffered any serious injury.
“He’s steadily getting worse and worse,” said Chen Chih-chung, his son. “He tried to kill himself because his condition was deteriorating.”
Chen Chiao-chicy, a psychiatrist who met regularly with the former president during a hospital stay this year, said Mr. Chen was suffering from severe depression and had spoken previously of suicide. “He feels hopeless,” said Dr. Chen, who is not related to the former president. “He said if I kill myself this will be a big event, this can promote judicial justice for Taiwan, the democracy of Taiwan and Taiwan independence.”
Such statements tend to raise the hackles of the former president’s critics, some of whom have never trusted him. When Mr. Chen was shot while campaigning for re-election in 2004, many of them concluded — despite any concrete evidence — that he staged the shooting. Now they wonder if his health is really all that bad.
“Whenever I hear what Chen Shui-bian says, what Chen Shui-bian wants to do, I always have my doubts,” said Huang Kwei-bo, an associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University who served on the campaign of Mr. Chen’s nemesis and successor, Ma Ying-jeou. “Even though I think Chen Shui-bian is acting, I’m not denying that his health condition might be getting a little bit worse. That part I don’t doubt, but over all, I have doubts.”
Mr. Chen’s request for medical parole has put both the government and the opposition in an awkward position. If Mr. Ma shows any leniency, he would anger Mr. Chen’s old opponents in the governing party. But doing nothing has left him looking heartless and vulnerable to continuing criticism.
Many in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, meanwhile, would like to put Mr. Chen, its longtime leader, in the past. “He made contributions to the party and the country, but the damage he did was far greater than his contribution,” said Lin Cho-shui, a former party legislator.
Mr. Ma has refused to consider a pardon while the remaining charges against Mr. Chen are being prosecuted. (Mr. Chen’s wife, Wu Shu-chen, who was also sentenced to 20 years in prison for corruption, was granted medical parole in 2011 because of health concerns.)
Mr. Chen was hospitalized last fall and received a diagnosis of mild brain atrophy, severe depression and Parkinsonism, a condition similar to Parkinson’s disease, according to doctors at the Taipei Veterans General Hospital. His symptoms included stuttering, trembling hands and an unsteady gait, but the Ministry of Justice decided the conditions were not severe enough to warrant medical parole and sent him in April to a prison in Taichung.
Corrections officials say they have gone out of their way to care for Mr. Chen because of his status as a former president. His “garden-style medical treatment quarter,” as the government describes it, includes a 320-square-foot bedroom, an activity room, a private bathroom and a garden.
Still, Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor who met with Mr. Chen in December, said he could benefit from being sent to a hospital in Kaohsiung, his family home. “I don’t have any sympathy for Chen and his wife. I think their behavior was shocking and tragic and terrible. On the other hand, I do have an interest to make sure he’s treated fairly,” he said.
At least one prominent Nationalist politician, Hau Lung-bin, the mayor of Taipei, supports granting Mr. Chen medical parole. He said improved treatment for Mr. Chen might help repair the deep rift between Taiwan’s political camps.
“I believe he broke the law, but he was a popularly elected president, and he was the very first president to force the shift of political power in Taiwan’s history. In previous elections, he won the support of more than six million Taiwanese people,” Mr. Hau said. He added: “I personally feel that even though he’s guilty, as a former president, Chen Shui-bian deserves better treatment.”
【Joe Lin 評論】
CSB is getting the attention now. Ma needs to pay attention. The U.S. Congress is preparing a Resolution. This humanitarian issue will not go away. President Chen deserves to be sent home to recover from the brutal torture he is being continually subjected to by the Ma/KMT government.
【Jay Tu 評論】
The report is still not well balanced because it does not elaborate on enough details and people he interviewed, except his son and Dr. Chen Chiao-Chi, are all anti-Abian people. Nevertheless, it is a positive step.