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Taiwan ex-President Chen given life term for graft
by Peter Enav

The Associated Press    Translate This Article
11 September 2009

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) - A Taiwan court sentenced former President Chen Shui-bian to life in prison after convicting him on graft charges Friday, a spectacular fall from grace for a man who rode to power on promises to end decades of corruption and deepen the island's de facto independence.

The conviction, which will automatically be appealed, marks a watershed in Taiwan's turbulent political history, and a crucial test for the island's still-evolving democracy.

It also sets the stage for a deepening conflict between the ruling Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with China, and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which Chen helped found in 1986.

The Chen verdict was announced as several hundred of his enraged supporters demonstrated outside the downtown Taipei court, carrying signs saying 'Free him' and 'Chen's innocent.'

With the 58-year-old Chen absent from the courtroom—he chose to stay in the suburban Taipei jail where he has been detained since December—a three-judge panel declared that the former leader was guilty of wide-ranging graft offenses.

Chen had been charged with embezzling $3.15 million during his 2000-2008 presidency from a special presidential fund, receiving bribes worth at least $9 million in connection with a government land deal, laundering some of the money through Swiss bank accounts, and forging documents.

The court also convicted Chen's wife, Wu Shu-chen, on related graft offenses, and sentenced her as well to life in prison.

'Chen Shui-bian and Wu Shu-chen were sentenced to life in prison because Chen has done grave damage to the country, and Wu, because she was involved in corruption deals as the first lady,' Taipei District Court spokesman Huang Chun-ming said.

The two were also fined a total of NT$500 million ($15.2 million), Huang said.

Chi Yen-lieh, an official at the jail where Chen is being held, said he seemed calm after hearing the verdict.

'His mood was stable and there was no emotional change,' Chi said.

Wu, who has been free on her own recognizance, was not in court.

While most Taiwanese believe that Chen is guilty of at least some of the charges against him, the severity of his sentence prompted some critics to charge that he was persecuted for his pro-independence views and his central role in ending the 50-year monopoly on power of the now-resurgent Nationalists.

'Never has any official charged with corruption in Taiwan ever been sentenced to life in prison,' said political scientist Liao I-ming of the National University of Kaohsiung. 'Chen may feel the verdict is unfair because he is not the only politician to have been involved in corruption acts in Taiwan's history.'

But fellow political scientist Liao Da-chi of Kaohsiung's National Sun Yat-sen University said the judges' decision appeared to reflect Taiwan's prevailing mood, which turned decisively against the former leader in the last 18 months of his presidency amid almost daily allegations of new corrupt acts and growing tensions with China and the United States.

For the past year, the Chen legal saga has riveted the island of 23 million people, which held its first direct presidential election in 1996, less than a decade after it began dismantling four decades of strict one-party Nationalist rule.

Chen, Taiwan's first non-Nationalist leader since Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949, rode to power in 2000 on a promise to clean up decades of Nationalist corruption and attracted international attention for his strong resistance to China's claim that Taiwan was part of its territory.

But he quickly fell afoul of the Nationalists' majority in the legislature and his alleged tendency to play fast and loose with accepted procedures.

Complicating matters was China's outright hostility to Chen's pro-independence views, and his tense relations with the United States, Taiwan's most important foreign partner.

Washington saw Chen's support for independence as raising the possibility of a war with Beijing that could also involve the United States, and pressured him to desist—with limited success.

Since coming to power 16 months ago, Ma has jettisoned Chen's pro-independence policies, bringing Taiwan's economy ever closer to the mainland's and speaking frequently in favor of a formal peace treaty with Beijing.

But his stock has recently plummeted over charges that he and his government badly botched the response to Typhoon Morakot, the devastating storm that pummeled southern Taiwan early last month at the cost of an estimated 670 lives.

The big question for Taiwan now is whether Chen's pro-independence allies will capitalize on Ma's weakened position—and on any wave of anger stemming from Chen's heavy sentence—to sidetrack the new president's rapidly developing China policy.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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