Chen detention hurts trust in Taiwan courts

Questions about the fairness of the process by which the Taipei District Court remanded ex-president Chen Shui-bian to detention early yesterday morning may haunt future confidence in Taiwan's judicial independence with the spectre of political interference by the "formerly authoritarian" Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) government.
After a marathon 12-hour hearing, Taipei District Court Judge Tsai Shou-shun announced at 2:31 a.m. the decision of a panel of three judges to return Chen to detention at the Taiwan Taipei Detention Center since he was suspected of "major crimes" of "corruption" in relation to alleged misuse of discretionary state affairs funds and money laundering and could flee the country or collude or destroy evidence if left at large.
The judgement reversed two previous judgements issued by Taipei District Court Judge Chou Chan-chun to release Chen without bail after 32 days of incommunicado detention after prosecutors of the Special Investigation Division of the Supreme State Prosecutor indicted ex-president and 13 other relatives and associates on corruption and other charges in relation to four cases, including the state affairs funds case, on Dec. 12.
The reversal followed the second successful appeal by SID prosecutors to the Taiwan High Court Sunday and a decision by the Taipei District Court to combine all of the cases involving the ex-president under Tsai instead of choosing the judges by random.
The Code of Criminal Procedures does allows prosecutors to ask judges for authority to detain persons charged with serious crime carrying a sentence of over five years whom they believe are likely to flee the country or destroy evidence.
Although welcomed by KMT legislators as "the best New Year's gift to the people," a statement by the office of the former president declared that the judgement violated the principle of the presumption of innocence and actually signified "a guilty verdict imposed without the benefit of a trial."
However, from the standpoint of the protection of human rights and the constitutional principle of the presumption of innocence, such detention should absolutely not be considered as a precondition for the investigation or prosecution of a case or a regular tool for such investigations but should only be used in exceptional circumstances.
Guilty before trial
Unfortunately, the process leading up to yesterday's judgement has raised serious questions about the potential and unnecessary harm to Chen's judicial human rights, especially the right of defense against the charges against him in a court of law while held in isolation in a location where all meetings with defense counsel take place in the presence of law enforcement officers and are taped for the benefit of prosecutors.
Moreover, the decisions by the Taiwan High Court and the decision by the Taipei District Court to combine all of the cases involving the former president Judge Tsai Shou-shun in line with vocal demands by KMT Legislator Chiu Yi and other KMT politicians and pro-KMT media, not to mention the assumption of guilt underlying the decision to impose post-indictment and pretrial detention, raise less serious concerns over whether the Taiwan judiciary is truly operating independently of political interference.
The vast majority of Taiwan citizens already bear scant trust in prosecutors and the Investigation Bureau, which was one of the major secret police organs that propped up the former authoritarian KMT party-state, during whose rule most sitting judges and serving prosecutors began their careers or were educated.
The handling of the Chen detention hearings by the Taipei District Court and the Taiwan High Court is likely to breed similar mistrust of judges and concern over whether judges will treat the judicial rights of ordinary citizens with greater respect than they have shown for a former president.
In judging whether a person should be detained or not, Taiwan judges reflect the ideological heritage of five decades of KMT authoritarianism with their consistent emphasis on the "needs" or "effectiveness" of prosecution and habitual neglect of the judicial human rights of defendants, especially the presumption of innocence enshrined in our own Constitution as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Moreover, the frequent recourse to pretrial detentions undermines the principle of equality of both the prosecution and defense in an adversary court proceeding by imposing severe constraints on the ability of the defense attorneys to defend their clients.
The decision to impose pretrial detention on former president Chen Shui-bian and the series of incommunicado detentions of present and former DPP government officials and the flagrant misuse of unnecessary handcuffing has magnified the potential of the abuse of this power in inflicting damage on the level of protection of human rights for all Taiwan citizens, on overall confidence in the fairness of the judiciary and hopes for realizing political reconciliation at home.
If a country's judicial system is not trusted by citizens, the viability of democratic institutions and the rule of law will surely collapse and the people will no longer choose judicial channels to settle political conflicts or personal disputes and instead return to the path of resistance or even individual acts of violence and lead to a grave crisis in our society.

Updated : 2021-04-13 18:01 GMT+08:00