New report links state forces to death of 1980s activist Chen Wen-chen

NTU campus. (NTU Facebook photo)

NTU campus. (NTU Facebook photo)

Democracy activist Chen Wen-chen (陳文成), who was found dead on a university campus in Taipei in 1981, is believed to have been murdered, and state security forces were most likely involved, according to a new investigative report released Monday.

The report by the Transitional Justice Commission (TJC) summarized the latest findings in its investigation into the death of Chen, who was a 31-year-old mathematics professor at Carnegie Mellon University at the time.

In 1981, while Chen was in Taiwan in vacation, he was summoned for questioning on July 2 by the Taiwan Garrison Command (TGC), a state security force that has since been disbanded.

The next day, his body was discovered near the main library of National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taipei, his alma mater. Six rounds of investigations concluded that his death was either a suicide or accidental.

Years later, however, a foundation that was established in Chen's name said a more likely explanation for his mysterious death was his known activism and his interrogation the day before by the TGC, a unit notorious for suppressing activities viewed as promoting democracy during Taiwan's decades-long period of martial law under the Kuomintang (KMT) government.

The case was examined again after the establishment of the TJC in May 2018, as part of its assignment to uncover Taiwan's history of political repression in the martial law era (1949-1987).

In releasing the TJC report Monday, one of its members said a review of recently declassified files indicated that Chen was most likely murdered and that the state security forces may have been involved.

The TJC investigation found that Chen and his whole family had been under close government surveillance, by means of wiretapping and with the help of informants, for an entire year before his death, even while he was in the United States, said TJC member Yu Po-hsiang (尤伯祥).

Chen and his family came under government scrutiny because of his activism in democracy and human rights movements and his donations to the pro-democracy Formosa Magazine, Yu said, citing the TJC report.

Although the security forces insisted they had only held Chen for questioning from 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on July 2, there was no evidence to show that he was not still under surveillance after he was released, Yu said.

All the witness testimonies about Chen's release were full of discrepancies and inconsistencies, Yu said.

Regarding the cause of Chen's death, the TJC investigation found that he had not died on the NTU campus where his body was discovered, but rather the body had been taken there from some other location, according to Yu.

That was the conclusion of forensic expert Lee Chun-I (李俊億), who reexamined the photos of the corpse and other related evidence, Yu said, noting that previous investigations had determined Chen had died either by suicide or accident.

Lee concluded that two wounds found on Chen's back were not caused by a fall, as was stated in previous investigations, but more likely by a blunt object, according to Yu.

Based on the new findings, the TJC has reported that Chen was most likely murdered, and the TGC was somehow involved, Yu said, adding that more evidence is needed to reach a firm conclusion.

According to acting TJC head Yang Tsui (楊翠), the investigation will continue, and an effort will be made to interview a TGC member who had questioned Chen in 1981.

The TJC, established by the government in 2018 primarily to examine political repression during Taiwan's martial law period, has been investigating two unsolved cases of deaths as one of its priorities.

Apart from the Chen case, the other is the 1980 death of the mother and twin daughters of Lin Yi-hsiung (林義雄), a prominent democracy leader at the time.

In a report released in February, the TJC said Taiwan's intelligence apparatus was likely involved in the triple homicide 40 years ago, but the destruction of key evidence had made it hard to draw firm conclusions.