Taiwan’s Chen gets a spacious cell

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

April 19 was a day Taiwan’s penal authorities were ordered to carry out two cloak-and-dagger missions. In the evening, they had to pull the trigger on six death-row inmates. In the early hours, they had been told to transfer ailing former president Chen Shui-bian from the Taipei hospital where he was being treated to a prison hospital in Taiwan’s central city of Taichung.

By moving the former head of state back to jail to continue serving a 20-year sentence for corruption, his presidential successor and political rival Ma Ying-jeou seems to have found the ultimate solution to what had turned into a rather tedious Chen drama. 
But not everyone is pleased.

“Prison wardens got A-bian up at 5am, brought him to [Taichung Prison] Pei The hospital, but forgot to bring along his medication,” Ko Wen-je, one of Chen’s physicians, decried on his Facebook page how rough the transfer went, referring to Chen by his nickname. “Patient, family members, doctors – no one knew a thing. A-bian has been president for eight years and deserves at least a bit of dignity.”

Lawmakers belonging to Chen’s former party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), went berserk, kicking in the door to Minister of Justice Tseng Yung-fu’s office and insulting him.

Although Taiwan generally enjoys aligning itself with the West, its criminal code is rather draconian. Executions have resumed in recent years after a long memorandum, and prison sentences of 15 years or longer are frequently imposed for even non-violent crimes.

Chen is arguably the most famous inmate. He served as Taiwan’s president from 2000 to 2008 and was jailed in 2009 for ample corruption-related misdeeds. The government of Ma, whose landslide election in 2008 was a direct outcome of Chen’s deep fall from grace, has all along refused to grant Chen preferential treatment, leading to the former head of state’s confinement in a cell of 1.38 ping (4.6 square meters). In what is a bit smaller than one-and-a-half queen-size mattresses, Chen had no proper bed, no table, no chair, and was at times locked in with a petty criminal. That Taiwanese prisons are notorious for a lack of daylight certainly did not help much in keeping the by now 62-year-old in good physical shape, either.

Particularly in the early stage of Chen’s detention, his family and other supporters focused in their fight for his freedom by portraying his fate as the outcome of a political vendetta by Ma and his party, the Kuomintang (KMT). They alleged that Chen, who is detested by mainland China for his bold attempts to steer Taiwan toward formal independence, was framed by the Beijing-friendly KMT in order to facilitate smooth cross-strait relations. Obviously because this approach failed miserably in creating sufficient public support for Chen, the strategy to free him underwent a shift by early 2012, and so the list of Chen’s ailments growing longer by the week.

Chen has so far been diagnosed with acute coronary syndrome, benign tumors, degenerative joint disease, hypothermia, autonomic instability, post-traumatic stress syndrome, clinical depression, severe sleep apnea, non-typical Parkinson’s Disease, stutter speech disorder and mild cerebral atrophy.

While “A-bian’s fate doesn’t matter too much for Taiwan domestic politics”, as Wang Yeh-lih, chair of the Department of Political Science of National Taiwan University, put it in a recent interview with Asia Times Online, it did create some waves internationally. Members of US Congress, European Union politicians and human rights activists have made countless calls for Chen’s medical parole. Western academics when visiting Taipei have relentlessly given Taiwanese officials an earful over the matter.

Just one day before Chen’s transfer, US Secretary of State John Kerry during a special congressional hearing on foreign affairs promised to have a good look at the case.

Although the pressure such foreign attention caused for the Ma government is hardly gaugeable, in September 2012 Chen was admitted to Taipei Veterans General Hospital. There, his treatment dragged on conspicuously long. After the hospital earlier this month declared that Chen’s acute diseases had largely been dealt with but that psychological problems remained, the Ministry of Justice had to act.

The ministry ruled out medical parole because that is granted only to those at the brink of death and also turned down the home-based convalescence Chen’s family is demanding on the grounds that it would be illegal. The ministry therefore decided it had the choice of sending Chen back to his tiny cell or coming up with a novel solution. As Chen’s new cell measures 9.2 ping (or nine queen-size mattresses), boasts bookshelves, an anti-slip shower, a desk as well as a spring mattress, and there are landscaped lawns, exercise equipment and a total of 243 ping for Chen’s exclusive use, an appropriate solution seems to have been found at long last.

Still, the question arising is: why did it take that long?

Could it be that recent high-profile corruption cases involving two of Ma’s top aides sealed Chen’s fate? After all, Ma, himself a former justice minister, has lost the moral high ground through the downfall of his right-hand colleagues – cabinet secretary-general Lin Yi-shih and Ma’s KMT office head Lai Su-ju, the former expecting his ruling on April 30, the latter detained incommunicado.

Or was it because Ma’s inner-party rivals, most notably Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, have at Ma’s expense begun endearing themselves to Chen’s political camp by calling for his release?

“I do not know why Ma agreed or decided to transfer Chen to Taichung,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. “But it seems a very reasonable decision, whoever first proposed it. Something like this would have to be based on the assessment of the medical team and what will be deemed reasonable by reasonable people.”

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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