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Former Taiwanese president gets life in prison for corruption

Chen Shui-bian and his family were accused of diverting millions from a presidential fund and accepting $9 million in bribes. He blames politics for his prosecution.

September 12, 2009|Barbara Demick

BEIJING — Former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian on Friday was handed an unexpectedly stiff sentence of life in prison at the end of a corruption trial steeped in politics.

The 58-year-old politician didn't appear for the sentencing in Taipei, Taiwan, protesting the charges on which he was convicted, which he contends were revenge for his push for independence from Beijing during his eight years in office.

A cordon of police in riot gear guarded the Taipei district courthouse while Chen's supporters chanted, "Justice is unfair," and "Judicial pandemic."

Chen's wheelchair-bound wife, Wu Shu-chen, also received a life sentence on a corruption conviction. Their son and daughter-in-law, convicted of money laundering, were given 2 1/2 - and one-year terms, respectively.

The former president and his family were charged with siphoning millions from a special presidential fund and receiving bribes of at least $9 million through a land deal, using Swiss bank accounts in an attempt to conceal their financial crimes.

From the outset, the case was high political drama, with Chen playing the martyr, spending two weeks on a hunger strike and publicly accusing his successor, Ma Ying-jeou, of putting him in jail "as a sacrifice to appease China."

Bonnie S. Glaser, an expert in Taiwan's politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believes that the life sentence will heighten political turmoil on the island.

"It is a quite a harsh sentence. . . . It is going to be hard for people to say that it was not politically motivated, and that could have profound political implications," said Glaser.

Even some who believed Chen was guilty question aspects of the investigation, which was formally launched one hour after Chen left office as president in May 2008.

After Chen's indictment, a three-judge panel that had ordered him released on his own recognizance was replaced, and new judges ordered Chen kept in custody.

"There was no due process at all," said Shane Lee, a political science professor at Chang Jung Christian University in southern Taiwan.

Lee said he believed the current government of President Ma was anxious about Chen's continuing political influence.

"Of course he still has influence. . . . There is a saying, if you want to kill the snake, you have to kill the head."

Although Chen's Democratic Progressive Party was trounced in elections last year, the party still has strong support and has at times tried to sabotage Taiwan's rapprochement with Beijing, most recently inviting the Dalai Lama for a visit. The exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, reviled as a separatist by Beijing, went to comfort victims of last month's Typhoon Morakot.

Ma's political difficulties have been heightened as well by public criticism of his government's slow response to the devastating typhoon, which killed more than 500 people.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Special correspondent Cindy Sui in Taipei contributed to this report.

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