Chen Charge Mixed Bag for Taiwan Democracy

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A television staff displays a placard showing former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian and his family during a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Taipei on Dec. 12, 2008

Former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian made history again on Friday as prosecutors indicted him and his wife for corruption charges. After becoming the first former president to be detained for corruption at the Taipei Detention Center on Nov. 12, Taiwan's Supreme prosecutor's office indicted Chen, his wife, his son and his daughter-in-law on a list of charges that included money laundering, embezzlement, bribery and forgery. The office suggested "a severe punishment" for Chen — which could mean a life sentence — because "he showed no remorse and even attacked the judicial system," according to according to a statement read by the prosecutor's office spokesman.

Having barely eaten for the last month on hunger strike, Chen claims his arrest is politically motivated by the current administration of President Ma Ying-jeou in a bid to appease China. Ma has been forging economic ties with China since he came to office in May, while Chen has historically had tense relations with Taiwan's giant neighbor because of his independence leanings. Ma has given no comment on the indictment and said that he respects Taiwan's judicial process.

On one hand, analysts say Chen's case is a milestone for Taiwan's young democracy. "This is the first time this has happened in the history of any Chinese civilization, and it's a good lesson for the rule of law," says political commentator Antonio Chiang. But, Chiang adds, it's also a blow to the nation's democratic movement which was first led by Chen's Democratic Progressive Party. "A lot of people have become cynical about democracy." Chiang says. "They don't trust politicians."

Prosecutors are still deciding whether to continue to detain Chen or release him on bail. He and his wife, along with his son and daughter-in-law, will face trials that could last a few years. Chen is accused of using his son and daughter-in-law as figureheads to open overseas bank accounts holding US$21million. Chen has maintained that the funds were leftover campaign funds and denies any wrongdoing. He and his wife are also indicted in three other corruption cases. In total, 14 people, including former aides and officials, were indicted Friday.