Three years ago, Professor Jay Tu of North Carolina State University wrote me concerning the plight of the former president of Taiwan, Mr Chen Shui-Bian. Mr. Chen was jailed immediately after his two terms as President of Taiwan for corruption, real or imagined. Jay felt no one was paying attention to this prisoner’s treatment in jail as well as the false charges against him. At first I did not see much of an issue, as I got the same impression as everyone else – that Mr. Chen was a corrupted politician. But Jay continued to send me articles and updates, among others. Finally, after many phones calls and email exchanges, Jay said to me, “Jack, take this case over. It is a real human rights issue.”
There had been a few writers, mostly on the right, reporting on the conditions and environment of the prison for this prisoner. A few republicans added their voices, but not many. One US congressional delegation went to Taiwan for the inauguration of the second term of President Ma and they were not allowed to even raise the issue at the insistence of one congress woman from Miami. The charges were non violent charges, none of them. His jail sentence was 19.5 years for alleged corruption in office as President of Taiwan.
The background to Mr. Chen is important. He comes from the green side, represented by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the party of those who for the most part were born and raised on Taiwan. The blue side, called KMT, is controlled by those who followed Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan from China after Chiang lost to Mao Tse-Tung in 1947-48. The KMT held military rule under martial law from 1949 to 1987 and has held the presidencies except for Mr. Chen who came from the green side and a non-mainlander. He was the ideal of a success story of the new Taiwan. In jail, for good or bad reasons, Mr. Chen remains as the symbol of the Old Taiwan under military rule.
I had visited Taiwan twice, once while under military rule with soldiers positioned at the airport with very shiny helmets and once right after the martial law was lifted. But this story just did not get on my radar until Jay called.
As I looked into it, I wanted to make sure my Human Rights Action Center (HRAC) was doing the right thing. I sent two friends from the human rights movement over to visit the man. Hans Wahl and Harreld Dinkins were expecting to see a reasonably healthy man who once had been a great corporate lawyer, mayor of Taipei and a President twice. Instead, they found in front of them a weakened, old man with all kinds of ailments. HRAC proceeded then to start writing blogs on Huffington Post to right this wrong. But I still could not figure out why so few human rights groups and Congress folks were looking out for this man, with the usual letters, visits, Congressional mentions, etc. He was forgotten. And he was in bad health. Our blogs, along with a dedicated few kept on the government of Mr. Ma and eventually he was moved to a bed in a hospital room. But the history of rushed doctor visits and drive-through hospital exams, in particular, the inhuman prison conditions, 24 hours surveillance under bright lights, crammed quarters (no bed, no table, no flush toilet, and no hot water) and little time out of the cell (30 minutes a day) broke this man’s health and mental powers. He was declining into a mess of health problems.
Some solid voices started to come into the picture; Republican and Democrats like Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Dick Durbin of Illinois. HRAC’s articles appeared regularly. The Secretary General of Amnesty International visited and he added his voice. Prof. Jerome Cohen of New York University School of Law, whom President Ma brought to Taiwan, even spoke up and called for medical relief. More people in Taiwan started to join the loyal few supporters of Mr. Chen. The blogs of HRAC were gaining large hits.
In November, DPP won the county and city elections in a landslide. The newly elected mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, has been the chair of a volunteer medical team for Mr. Chen. He has called for medical release. Ms. Annette Lu, former vice president, started a hunger strike on Dec. 28 for his immediate release, recognizing the clear and present danger to Mr. Chen’s life. I met Ms. Lu once in DC for a lunch meeting, and I am impressed with her intelligence and her commitment to comradeship. By the time this article is published, she would be on hunger strike for over 48 hours, risking her own life to save the life of her friend and her president. President Ma’s support has suffered and is in the single digits. His cold reaction to the plight of Mr. Chen is seen as vengeance and cruel. DPP won the election simply because Ma, once a political darling, has become repugnant to the people in Taiwan. Despite this, the model of President Ford sending Richard Nixon home as a free man has not gotten into the minds of President Ma.
A tipping point is being reached. Young people in particular are voicing their support for Mr. Chen. They organize concerts and rallies, pledging to take whatever it takes to get him released. The young student, who threw a book (Formosa Betrayed by George Kerr) at Mr. Ma, went to visit Mr. Chen in prison and wrote an open letter to profess how he went from being convinced of Mr. Chen’s guilt by the media to wanting to follow Chen’s footsteps as the next Son of Taiwan.
While many, both on the green and the blue side, used to think that Mr. Chen had been corrupt, the majority are now rethinking that and looking once again at the charges. Those charges are now fewer in number, most found not guilty or dropped without indictments. Those cases for which he was convicted for 19.5 years, had serious judicial violations. My guess is that these cases will all go away. But guess or not, the symbol of the people of Taiwan should not be allowed to rot in jail. Former presidents are national symbols. Mr. Chen is also a national symbol of the green camp. And he is the national symbol of the people who have lived for a very long time in Taiwan.
Mr. Chen must go home. His death in jail will turn back the democratic clock in Taiwan. The KMT will be seen as a vengeance seeker. If the charges are dropped, the penal system under President Ma will kill an innocent man. Time has arrived for mercy and compassion. The future of Taiwan should not put this blot on their record in 2015. Allowing an ailing man to go home IS easy. Medical opinion must be observed. Allowing him to die in jail will never die in the history of Taiwan.