A panel of judges at the Taipei District Court ordered President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) yesterday to pay NT$1 in compensation to two opposition leaders and to publish written apologies in Taiwan's three major newspapers for accusing the two of staging a "soft coup" last year without providing evidence to back up his claim.
The ruling made Chen the first incumbent head of state to face a setback in a civil case - the R.O.C. Constitution grants the president immunity from being investigated for criminal cases. "The president will appeal against the ruling according to law," the Presidential Office responded in a press release later yesterday.
"The defendant should pay NT$1 to each plaintiff and carry a half-page written apology on the front page of the China Times, United Daily News and Liberty Times for one day," announced Judge Chiang Kuang-chao. But he continued, "The court turned down the plaintiffs' other requests."
The other requests referred to by Chiang included that Chen ought to carry written apologies in international newspapers, including the New York Times, Times, Le Figaro and Daily Yomiuri for three consecutive days. The plaintiffs - opposition Kuomintang Chairman Lien Chan (連戰) and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) - originally demanded that Chen carry the apology on three local dailies for three days, too.
Lien and Soong's demand that Chen pay NT$1 as monetary compensation for the groundless accusation was proper and "should be granted," the judges concluded in the verdict. They endorsed Lien and Soong's view that Chen's accusation had damaged the two political heavyweights' "reputation and integrity."
Besides "certain retired high ranking military officials" and "incumbent high ranking officials," the president also mentioned "certain people" in his disputed remark, the judges said. Since the president continued his remark by urging people to stop "the turmoil of Lien and Soong" by voting in favor of his Democratic Progressive Party candidates in last year's legislative elections, the plaintiffs' contention that Chen had impaired Lien and Soong's name by linking them to the "soft coup" sounds reasonable, the judges decided.
The judges also argued in the verdict that as the defendant had never presented the evidence he claimed to have in hand to the court, they believed that the allegation was not true.
Since Chen asserted that the coup failed, the court viewed that disclosure of related evidence would not jeopardize national security, the judges continued, though the defendant once said he must check whether making some evidence public would be sensitive and endanger national safety.
Making the controversial revelation in his capacity as head of state, the judges ruled that Chen should not enjoy the constitutional "freedom of speech" granted to people when he came up with the claim last year, said district court spokesman Liu Shou-sung.
The Constitution stipulates that the president is a government organ, rather than a person who enjoys the citizenship entitled by the Constitution, Liu explained. The president was obligated to provide evidence for his claim, the verdict stated, adding that he must be fully responsible for all remarks he makes.
The judges deemed that the plaintiff's contention of asking Chen to run his apology in foreign newspapers was unreasonable, since "this is a domestic issue."
Chen first came up with the comment about the pan-blue alliance's "aborted coup d'etat" in April last year, referring to week-long protests by pan-blue politicians and supporters against the result of last year's presidential election.
In November, he openly told his Democratic Progressive Party members again before a DPP weekly meeting that the two opposition leaders and their comrades had tried to topple the elected government through a soft coup after he was re-elected on March 20.