Chen Shui-bian, Prison, and the Human Rights Choice Facing Taiwan

Jack Healey, the Founder of the Human Rights Action Center

By the end of the year, Taiwan's first (and to date, only) opposition president will have been held in detention or prison for seven years. There are supporters who maintain his unquestionable and pristine innocence of all charges against him and there are detractors who say that he should be held accountable for all charges that have been brought against him, and not only for the ones he has been found guilty of. While there is a real need to hold everyone accountable under a rule of law, it isn't always a simple thing to actually apply such a principle. In the case of Chen Shui-bian and being tried under an administration of the only party allowed in Taiwan until the recent past, there have been allegations of what might be charitably called "judicial irregularity," an unquestionable polar politicization of the prosecution that has fallen broadly along party lines of Taiwan's Blue v. Green divide, and we have certainly found that the past has seen the systemic denial of complete and adequate medical care, sufficient to make some of his conditions worsen considerably or be made permanent and the creation of new conditions. We once again call on the release of the former president through medical parole, a compassionate pardon, or a graduated release program and call on it to happen as quickly as is feasible for the sake of the future of a Taiwan where democracy and human rights both flourish in full bloom rather than flicker in darkness.

In large part, the prosecution and imprisonment of Chen has been a result of the return of the KMT (the Kuomintang, the bulk of the Pan-Blue Coalition and until relatively recently the only party permitted in Taiwan until the end of dictatorial rule) to a position of power in Taiwan after the second term of the presidency. It is similarly true that most of the Pan-Green Coalition (composed largely of the DPP or Democratic Progressive Party) is sympathetic to Chen and maintain either his outright innocence or call for him to be released early on grounds of health, age, and prior service. It is difficult to overstate the polarization between these two positions when it comes to public discourse in Taiwan. The KMT claims that it is improper to interfere in the judicial process and that Chen must serve his term and not receive any special treatment due to his previous political position and that he has been found guilty of charges that must have time served. As would be expected, supporters proclaim his complete innocence of all charges or any form of wrongdoing.

While we support an independent and autonomous judiciary, there are enough facts to show strong evidence of political direction with the prosecution's choice to prioritize and vigorously pursue Chen so pointedly, not enough information available about the ever-lengthening list of charges-yet-to-be-brought against Chen, and certainly enough deviations from accepted standards of fair judicial proceedings to call into question such independence to begin with. On the question of medical support and care, there is no question at all. When anyone is taken into custody by the State, it is the obligation of the State to provide full and complete care of that person for the duration of detention. In Chen's case, while there have been notable improvements in such care, there were initial periods of surprisingly rushed and inadequate care in spite of repeated calls made both within Taiwan and by the international community for such care to be granted. In short, there are concerns about the objectivity of the judiciary and there is clear violation of standards with regard to some of Chen's care in at least the first few years of his detention. Chen himself has become resolute that he won't be kept on the edge of survival and has announced his intention to limit medical attempts to revive him if he is allowed to become more gravely ill without any real relief and the current medical advice is to remove him from the prison environment and permit him to return home.

But it is the last of these defensive concerns that are worth looking at again. The KMT maintains that Chen must serve his sentence to completion and that any medical parole or other early release is impossible. This is incorrect. There are indeed mechanisms in place to secure early release for someone like Chen and they range in effect and speed, but to suggest that there is no other option is disingenuous on the part of the government. The facts of his deteriorating health and the knowledge that the conditions of detention have been a contributing factor to such deterioration is of great import in considering such a release option. Perhaps more importantly, it might be wise for current President Ma Ying-jeou and his government to consider what this appears to be to the international community and to Taiwanese themselves, for it currently appears that the continued incarceration of Chen is an attempt to punish the audacity of the opposition to actually challenge the KMT as the source of power on the island and a cautionary warning to all others about the hazards of demanding a voice in the question of how to govern.

As the first and to-date only opposition party president in Taiwan's still very very young experience of multiparty democracy and a flourishing civil society, Chen will always be a symbol of change and possibility. This is true regardless of any view taken on the question of his innocence or guilt of charges (and the arguments laid out here hold true no matter what one believes). What sort of irreversible comment would the KMT be making about Taiwan's future including multiparty elections and governance if the former president dies in jail on nonviolent charges and conviction? Even if one posits guilt, is that an appropriate message to send about what the KMT did to Chen, who will always be the first and is currenly the only one from outside the KMT in modern Taiwan's history? Alternatively, if Ma were to break with the pattern so far and to release Chen to return home, what would the message and symbolism be? Couldn't it be to show those inside and outside of Taiwan that the path to multiparty democracy was a permanent choice and one that was fully mature? That Taiwan was firm and unyielding in embracing the principles of human rights for all of its peoples? That Taiwan was strong enough to concede when it had failed (in this case to deliver adequate medical care) and could redress things the best it could with early release? That all Taiwanese had a right to expect a voice in governance and that all peoples and all parties could challenge each other in a fair and open political process? How better to show that government had taken the necessary lessons from the Sunflower Movement's sudden emergence a few months ago to herald a new voice in Taiwan's politics and public consciousness?

The apparent speed with which the Sunflower Movement rose and took root in the public imagination in Taiwan suggests that there is perhaps another seismic shift afoot in the island's hearts and minds. Not so very long ago, it appeared that the single party rule of the KMT would continue indefinitely and there was very little reason to predict, much less expect, change to come and very few predicted that it would move so quickly from authoritarian state to mulitparty democracy including the election of an opposition party to the highest halls of power. Since retaking the presidency, there have been elements in the KMT who have seemingly sought to turn the clock backwards to defend itself against difference. There has been a time in the past when the people in power were able to look beyond their own individual and party goals to do what was best for the people of Taiwan, to improve their lives in the short-term and also for the long run. We hope that Ma Ying-jeou and the brokers and policymakers in Taipei would see the wisdom of doing the same again. Free Chen Shui-bian. Work to heal the political polarization. Grow with the Sunflower Movement and plant the seeds of tomorrow and beyond. Taiwan used to be one of the most inspiring places in Asia for human rights. We hope that it can be so in the future.

Take a moment and contact your Representatives and Senators. See www.contactingthecongress.org if you're not sure who that is or how to do that. Generally, we think physical letters have the best impact, then phone calls, then emails. But if all you have time for is an email, it's certainly worth having your voice in any form more than none. Remind them of the previously impressive track record of Taiwan moving to respect human rights and to become a modern multipary democracy and tell them that you're concerned about their treatment of Chen Shui-bian and the signal it sends to all opposition politicians in Taiwan and elsewhere in the region who think of challenging single party rule. It would be far better to send Chen home before his seventh anniversary of being in prison rather than have him end up expiring in one. Free Chen. Free Taiwan.

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posted June 17, 2014