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Article Taiwan: Former President Given Life Sentence on Charges of Corruption

(Oct. 5, 2009) On September 11, 2009, Taiwan's former President, Chen Shui-bian, and his wife, Wu Shu-jen, were sentenced to life imprisonment by the Taipei District Court, in a 1,415-page verdict (more than half of which comprises appended tables of data). Chen is Taiwan's first former president to be indicted and convicted of crimes. Chen and Wu were found guilty of money laundering, forgery, embezzlement, bribe-taking, and other charges, in violation of the Punishment of Corruption Act (of July 15, 1963, last amended on Apr. 22, 2009), the Money Laundering Control Act (of Oct. 23, 1996, last amended on June 10, 2009), and the Criminal Code (of Jan. 1, 1935, last amended on June 10, 2009). In addition, Chen was fined NT$200 million (about US$6.1 million) and Wu NT$300 million, and both had their civil rights annulled for life. The bribes reportedly totaled NT$800 million, “some of which was laundered overseas through Swiss bank accounts and paper companies.” (Shelley Huang, Chen Shui-bian Gets Life, TAIPEI TIMES, Sept. 12, 2009, available at; Press Release Detailed Contents, Taiwan Taipei District Court (Sept. 11, 2009), available at; text of the decision, Taiwan Taipei District Court website, Sept. 14, 2009, available at

On September 22, 2009, Chen was indicted on an additional charge of embezzling secret diplomatic funds in connection with 11 overseas visits he made during his tenure. Investigators allege that some US$330,000 was transferred to Chen's son, Chen Chih-chung, who was living abroad. Chiou I-jen, the head of Taiwan's National Security Council during Chen's presidency, was also indicted, along with former Foreign Minister Kau Ying-mao, on suspicion of embezzling diplomatic funds. (Ex-Taiwan Leader Indicted on More Graft Charge [sic], CAIJING, Sept. 22, 2009, available at

Chen has been kept in the Taipei Detention Center since December 30, 2008. On September 25, 2009, his detention was extended for three more months by the Taiwan High Court. (Shelley Huang, Analysis: Legal Experts Question Court Ruling in Chen Case, THE TAIPEI TIMES, Sept. 28, 2009, at 3, available at

The September 11 verdict states that during his presidency, Chen, “for selfish reasons … used his power to create wealth while putting aside integrity and loyalty to the country” and that, as the leader of the country, he should have known the precept that “if one person in power developed a greed for the people's money, the entire country would devolve into chaos.” (Chen Shui-bian Gets Life, supra.) (The precept is from the Confucian classic, THE GREAT LEARNING, Ch. 9 (3), (last visited Sept. 29, 2009).)

The former president and his wife were found guilty of receiving kickbacks from a development company to facilitate construction of a science park through the purchase of a plot of land from the company at a price deemed “unreasonably high” by prosecutors. They were also found guilty of collecting bribes from a contractor in 2002-2003 to help him win a tender for building an exhibition hall. The court further judged Chen and Wu guilty of certain charges prosecutors added against them on May 5, 2009, namely, taking NT$10 million in bribes from the chairwoman of the former Taipei Financial Center Corp and NT$300 million in political donations from a vice chairman of the former Chinatrust Financial Holding Co. There was speculation that Wu might be permitted to serve out her sentence through house arrest or other alternative means, because she has been confined to a wheelchair since 1985 and requires full-time care. (Chen Shui-bian Gets Life, supra.)

The court also handed down sentences in connection with money laundering charges to Chen Shui-bian's son, Chen Chih-chung, and daughter-in-law Huang Jui-ching. The former was sentenced to two years and six months of imprisonment and a fine of NT$150 million for having helped his parents wire money to overseas bank accounts; Huang received a sentence of one year and eight months and an NT$150 million fine. (Id.) Other relatives received lesser sentences. Two former presidential aides, among other friends and business acquaintances, were also given prison sentences by the court. However, Chen Chen-hui, the family's bookkeeper, was not sentenced “because she showed remorse for her crimes and provided key evidence to prosecutors and judges, including computer records she kept detailing the former first family's official and personal expenses.” (Id.)

Chen Shui-bian has denied the charges and deems his detention and trial tantamount to “political persecution” by the Ma Ying-jeou administration and the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT). One of his former attorneys, Cheng Wen-lung, called the ruling political “because the court handed down a guilty verdict when there was no proof Chen Shui-bian was guilty.” (Id.) Some legal experts have also questioned the decision. Huang Jui-ming, Chairman of the Judicial Reform Foundation (a non-government organization comprised of lawyers, professors, and social activists) decried the judges' lecturing Chen and Wu “like parents scolding children” and stated that it is not for the courts, which should be independent of politics, to criticize or praise elected officials. (Analysis: Legal Experts Question Court Ruling in Chen Case, supra.)

According to Kao Yung-cheng, secretary general of the Taipei Bar Association, Taiwan courts have a “big problem” with politics interfering in the judicial process and jeopardizing defendants' rights. In the Chen case, he averred, the court failed to insure that the defendants had sufficient time with their attorneys for the preparation of a proper defense, and “[pre-trial] detention should be a last resort.” Chen's suggestions of alternative forms of detention were rejected by the court. (Id.) Judicial Reform Foundation executive director Lin Feng-cheng was critical of the High Court's using as a reason for Chen's extended detention the fact that he was charged with “serious offenses,” saying that should not be a factor in a detention decision. He also criticized the District Court for having used “interference with the judiciary” as grounds for Chen's detention. Moreover, Wu's former attorney Stephen Lee stated in an opinion piece published in the LIBERTY TIMES, “[b]efore the High Court begins the litigation process, [Chen] should be viewed as innocent and therefore, released without bail. If the court finds that [Chen] might flee, then the court should set a bail amount.” (Id.)

Two American academics have also expressed dismay over the Chen trial proceedings. In the view of law professor Jerome Cohen, “Chen faced the near-impossible task of defending himself from jail and was 'fighting with one arm tied behind his back.'” While he expressed concern over the “huge allegations of corruption,” for which Chen should be prosecuted if crimes were involved, Cohen stated that nevertheless “the proceedings should be fair. I still hope the courts will release him under circumstances that will guarantee that he does not flee, but will also guarantee that he has an adequate chance to defend hi
mself as he appeals the sentence.” Arthur Waldron, a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, contended that “[t]he way Chen has been treated is not the way a developed and modern country deals with a former head of state. There is an element of the other political side getting its own back.” (William Lowther, US Academics Decry Unfair Treatment in Chen Trial, TAIPEI TIMES, Sept. 28, 2009, at 1, available at

Pro-government sectors of society hailed the ruling, however. For example, an editorial that appeared in the UNITED DAILY NEWS called the sentencing of Chen and Wu “an important day for democracy and the rule of law.” It continued:

In this and other cases, nine members of the Chen family have been found guilty and sentenced, which must be a record in the annals of democratic rule by law. With a justice system that can treat all citizens equally, so that when presidents commit a crime, they are as guilty as any common person, Taiwan stands out in the Chinese-speaking world. …

Not only can we elect our own president, we can sentence him for his crimes. Taiwan's democratic rule of law has now surpassed this threshold, and we must have the decisive will to keep on moving forward.

(Editorial, Democracy, the Rule of Law and Chen Shui-bian, TAIWAN TODAY, Sept. 18, 2009,available at [citing to UNITED DAILY NEWS, Sept. 12, 2009].)

It is expected that lawyers for both Chen and Wu will file appeals. (Chen Shui-bian Gets Life, supra.)

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