Abusing Power: Is Ma's Taiwan the Unbeautiful Island?

Since 2012 visit made by the Human Rights Action Center, much has changed for Chen Shui-bian and the people of Taiwan. After visiting in 2013, while the material conditions of his detention have been improved, and that is an important step to have achieved, he is still incarcerated. In his recent words, "no matter how nice things may appear, a prison is a prison is a prison." His political opponents may call for him to serve out his term and to protest that he is given better conditions than the bulk of the island's prison population. Outsiders may defer judging the situation owing to their non-expert status on Taiwan's legal codes and procedures. We submit that there are some clear and simple reasons why we believe that Chen Shui-bian's freedom is important irrespective of whether or not he is guilty of the charges that have been levied against him so far.

Although his medical care seems to have improved since 2012's visit by HRAC, his clinical conditions are still leaving more than a little to be desired. Serious sleep apnea, xerostomia, and weakness might not immediately arouse outsider concern. But the allegations of neurological problems, kidney issues, and peripheral circulation problems might. For a former president to admit to facing incontinence, demonstrating fairly heavy tremors in his hand, and displaying an intermittent stutter that renders him unable to speak confidently is fairly unusual, but to recognize that there are credible allegations of a number of his serious medical concerns being generated, worsened, or made permanent due to medically abandoning negligence and/or dangerously rushed batteries of tests is unprecedented for a politician in recent memory. Protests by the government that his medical records can't be released don't gel well with the assertions that they've been released to his family and are available to independent examination if they'll allow it. Are his medical records available for examination or not? If the family agrees (and they have) to allow such an examination, what message might the current Kuomintang President Ma intend by putting gag orders on their examination? We request anyone with authority to provide us with such information or at least to remove all barriers to it.

In our meetings in Taiwan, we were informed by some people from Chen's own medical team, his popular supporters, opposition DPP loyalists, KMT officials, and the rest that releasing someone is not allowed until after all extant legal proceedings are discharged through to a verdict. Without getting into the specifics of the island's legal structures, it is mind-boggling that nobody was able to simply tell us how many pending cases exist or what the expected timeframe would be for their resolution. There are strong inferences that can be made when a prosecutor under Ma's direct authority is refusing to simply release this sort of information. The impression is that there is a concerted effort to simply introduce additional cases as necessary to provide an endless parade of judicial procedure. This allows the governing party to claim on one hand an "inability" to provide any sort of relief or parole or pardon, while on the other hand helping to actually create the conditions that prevent such consideration. A reasonable judicial system would be transparent as to remaining charges and a reasonable timeline for their resolution. We ask authorities to provide a definitive answer to this question and to ensure a reasonably speedy resolution of proceedings against Chen.

Human rights are not very easy to separate from one another. Separating principles and ideas away from one another in this way is like trying to cleave parts of the mind away from one another. It just doesn't really work. In a world that respects human rights, all people have complete access to the rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and for all the rights that are implied therein. The question of releasing Chen Shui-bian is about principle more than people. Disrespecting principles of legal rights and protections puts everyone at risk. Having the first-and-only member of the opposition in a new multiparty Taiwan jailed is only a piece of the problem, but it is an important and imperative one. Taiwan was once named Ilha Formosa by the Portuguese. It means "beautiful island." As the hard-won expansions of human rights are eroded symbolically and actually, we find that it gets a little less beautiful every day.

So the threat with Taiwan, while very much signaled by and tied to Chen's apparent victimization at the hands of an angry, vindictive, and powerful Ma Ying-jeou, is larger than one person. Chen's case speaks to the overcrowding which plagues the prisons, the use of the law to pursue political revenge against anyone who fails to fall in line (including some from within the KMT party itself). The message that is sent symbolically by ruthless pursuit of a former head-of-state for nonviolent charges (the only person from outside the formerly one-party system of the KMT to hold the top office), the message is that dissent will not be tolerated. By extension, the extinction of a culture of vibrant dissent is a slow flickering death to the recently lit candle of democracy. Free Chen Shui-bian to go home as an already broken former leader and retain what little is left of Taiwan's respect on the political stage of democracy. Keep Taiwan beautiful. Free Chen Shui-bian.