Prison no barrier to Taiwan’s Chen

For Asia Times Online www.
TAIPEI – Taiwan’s ex-president Chen Shui-bian is emerging as a political oracle as his opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) selects a presidential candidate for 2012 elections, though he’s currently banged up in Taipei Prison serving 18 years for corruption charges.

From his prison cell, the former leader is busy making recommendations and predictions for Taiwanese politics, mostly for his old party, the DPP. While Chen’s addressing of a wide audience from behind prison walls reeks of preferential treatment – it is not. Under Taiwanese law, prisoner Chen is doing nothing that other inmates can’t do.

Chen has already published two books since his detention in late

2008, and at one stage planned to release a CD. He has made public political statements on numerous occasions: most recently, he criticized the DPP for phasing out a party member vote for primaries in favor of telephone polls, warned that DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen and former premier Su Tseng-chang are too at odds to form a presidential ticket in 2012, and stated that Tsai had the best chances for 2012.

He also blasted President Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) over a major diplomatic row with the Philippines, encouraged former vice president Annette Lu to run in 2012 and discussed with her the possibility of him being freed if the DPP won next year’s elections. From his cell, Chen also revealed to a local magazine that the sole purpose of him staying alive was to see what would become of Ma.

Given that Chen enjoys enough media exposure to make quite a few Taiwanese politicians envious, one can be forgiven for thinking that prisoner No1020 is being handled with kid gloves. But this island is not Indonesia or the Philippines, where jailed officials are known for throwing parties behind bars or taking secret leisure trips wearing a wig. Taiwan’s correctional facilities stick to the rule of law, and so must celebrity prisoner Chen.

Experts interviewed by Asia Times Online shed light on how Chen, despite supposedly being cut off from social life, regularly manages to add his two cents, remaining a player in Taiwan politics.

“It’s called ‘special interviews’; this is what prisons usually grant to Taiwanese lawmakers demanding to see a particular inmate,” said Huang Hua-hsi, a Taiwanese legislative assistant. This is the procedural loophole DPP legislators take advantage of when visiting Chen, afterwards conveying his remarks to the island’s media outlets.

As for how the former president keeps himself updated on political events, Huang said Chen had no special rights. “In terms of access to newspapers, TV, Internet or telephone, I think the same standards apply to Chen as to any other prisoner.”

Hwang Jau-yuan, professor at Taipei’s National Taiwan University’s College of Law, gives a more detailed picture of the conditions of Chen’s detention. “Reading books is OK, but they are subject to scrutiny and censored by the prison administration … Prisoners can read newspapers, though the choice might be limited to one or two.” Hwang says inmates can watch TV in a common room and that Chen’s previous cell-mate had a small portable TV which he shared.

According to Taiwan’s reasonably liberal Prison Act, inmates are permitted to own paper, pens and ink. An inmate can have visits and correspond by mail with spouses, lineal relatives, collateral relatives within the second degree of kinship and relatives by marriage within third degree of kinship.

However, crucial to Chen’s political activities, Article 62 stipulates that when there are specific reasons – and this apparently includes visiting lawmakers – this rule is subject to change as long as visits do not interfere with the principles of the prison. Visitation under surveillance in the visitation room is allowed once a week, limited to 30 minutes, but also here the option remains that frequency and time can be increased or extended if deemed necessary.

Prisons officials are in charge of inspecting inmates’ correspondence. Apart from the books Chen, like other inmates, can pick for himself, prisoners can gain access to reading material via group instructions. These literalistic treats are, however, of rather questionable entertainment value. It’s hard to imagine Chen making use of the teaching philosophy of Republic of China founder Sun Yat-Sen, let alone the quotes of the 20-something historical figures who served as presidents of the Republic of China before Chen himself.

Another clause in the prison law that is significant for Chen is Article 81, which stipulates that “essays written by a prisoner, whose subject is appropriate and does not offend the discipline and reputation of the prison, shall be permitted to be published in newspapers or magazines”.

Professor Hwang recalls that the vague wording “whose subject is appropriate” employed in the Prison Act has in the past got Chen into trouble.

“In some cases, particularly during a campaign period before elections, he was ‘punished’ for his comments. The prison administration banned him for receiving family members and friends for a certain period of time, say, a week”, says Hwang.

Hwang says Chen not only doesn’t receive preferential treatment, but is actually treated stricter than other inmates.

“Considering his status, the prison administration will usually prevent him from meeting other ordinary prisoners. In this sense, his interactions with other prisoners could be much limited and more restrictive.”

When former vice president Annette Lu visited Chen on March 9, the two discussed Lu’s bid for the presidency and a possible pardon for Chen if Taiwan’s next president came from the DPP.

Former DPP legislator Tsai Chi-fang, who met Chen shortly after Lu, reportedly told the jailed ex-president that he needed to “hold on a bit longer,” and, referring to a potential pardon by a future DPP administration, he assured Chen that his release was forthcoming. This assessment, however, seems to have been very wishful thinking indeed.

This is because Annette Lu – by far the DPP heavyweight closest to Chen – has since pulled out of the DPP race, leaving it between chairperson Tsai Ing-wen, former premier Su Tseng-chang and former DPP chairperson Hsu Hsin-liang. Hsu has long been Chen’s opponent in the DPP.

Legislative assistant Huang explains why neither Tsai Ing-wen nor Su Tseng-chang, let alone Ma, is likely to free Chen. He says that as most Taiwanese believe that Chen is guilty, and only a very few believe that he was framed by the KMT, freeing Chen holds no political benefits for whoever takes office in 2012.

“KMT voters simply don’t want to hear anymore of Chen Shui-bian, so President Ma won’t grant him a pardon,” he predicts. “As Tsai mainly targets political centrists and young voters, it’s unlikely that she would risk putting off her voter base for the sake of freeing Chen.”

According to Huang, about the only scenario left under which Chen could receive a presidential pardon would be a victory for Su Tseng-chang. But this seems rather remote, as it’s implausible that on the island there are more staunch supporters of Taiwanese independence like Chen Shui-bian taking to the poll booths than centrists and swing voters.

“Su will calculate how many votes can be won from the deep-green [staunch independence supporters], and how many can be lost annoying the centrists”, said Huang.



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