14 Nov 2008

[SCMP] Ties that blind--Improved cross-strait relations appear to have come at a cost to some civil liberties in Taiwan

Jerome Cohen (Former Supervisor of President Ma)
Updated on Nov 13, 2008

Last week's historic visit to Taiwan by Beijing's cross-strait chief, Chen Yunlin , which culminated in four useful agreements, focused attention on issues of human rights as well as politics. Some issues concerned the proper government response to public protests in a free society. Others involved fair investigation of former and present government leaders suspected of corruption.

Chinese have recognised the importance of protecting foreign envoys for almost 3,000 years. The feudal states that contended for power before establishment of the Qin dynasty reciprocally assured the personal safety of their emissaries. Such protection has continued to be indispensable to inter-state co-operation.

After police in Tainan failed to prevent an assault on Mr Chen's deputy, president Ma Ying-jeou's government was obligated to do better during Mr Chen's visit. Although police could not prevent Mr Chen from being trapped in a hotel for eight hours by a huge mob of protesters, they did defend him against bodily harm throughout a stressful week.

In doing so, they went beyond the limits of a free society, forbidding peaceful protesters from displaying Taiwanese and Tibetan flags, confiscating flags from demonstrators, closing a store that played Taiwanese songs and seeking to minimise the visitors' awareness of the protests. There were also incidents of police brutality, albeit sometimes in response to violent provocations by demonstrators.

The police misconduct even outraged many local supporters of Mr Chen's visit. Mr Ma, in addition to implementing his campaign pledge to sponsor revision of the Assembly and Parade Law to eliminate protesters' need for advance official permission, should recommend amendments prohibiting the kind of undemocratic police practices that recently occurred and order training designed to enhance police compliance with the law. It is encouraging to note that Democratic Progressive Party chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, who led the massive opposition demonstration, has subsequently called not only for a government review of police misconduct but also for a re-examination by her own party of its failures to maintain order among its demonstrators. The DPP, if it is to fulfil its essential role as democratic opposition, must not degenerate into an army of street fighters.

Some Taiwanese and foreign critics took the occasion of Mr Chen's visit to call attention to another crucial feature of democratic government - the fair prosecution of current and former officials suspected of corruption. The critics voiced three serious complaints about recent arrests and incommunicado detentions of prominent DPP figures who have served as government officials. They imply that the DPP is being singled out for prosecutions while corruption among Kuomintang leaders is being ignored. They also claim that: most DPP suspects have been held incommunicado without a court examination of the justification for their detentions; and that prosecutors' offices have been leaking detrimental information about the suspects to the media while denying them knowledge of the leaks and a chance to refute the "trial by press".

These practices, it is said, bring into question the political neutrality of the judiciary, and the presumption of innocence and other elements of due process required for the fair and open trials essential to democracy, raising the spectre of the unjust procedures of "the dark days of martial law" (1947-1987). It is not clear whether critics' claims of "selective prosecution" are well founded. Recent arrests may simply reflect massive corruption by the DPP, which dominated executive government for the past eight years - corruption that allegedly reached as high as former president Chen Shui-bian and his family.

Oddly, although during the Chen administration some prosecutions were brought against both DPP and KMT figures, some obvious KMT targets were overlooked despite reportedly thick dossiers compiled by Control Yuan investigators. Mr Ma should appoint a commission of impartial experts to review such prosecutions.

It does not appear that any of the recently detained DPP figures were denied a court hearing or their right to counsel. Moreover, there is a legislative basis for the courts' decisions to detain them incommunicado for up to four months of investigation if there is a reasonable basis for believing that the suspects might otherwise falsify evidence. Yet, in view of the harshness of this pre-indictment sanction and the obstacles it creates to mounting an adequate defence, it ought to be invoked rarely.

Certainly, the Legislative Yuan, or the commission suggested here, should re-examine legislation to strike a new balance between the threat of corruption to a democratic government and the threat of incommunicado detention to civil liberty.

The charge of biased prosecution leaks to the press seems to be the most straightforward of the critics' complaints. Such leaks, which occur in many countries, do appear to have taken place and cannot be allowed in a democratic system.

Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of NYU's US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations


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