Ex–Taiwan President Chen Sentenced to Life

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Taiwan former President Chen Shui-bian is seen behind barbed-wire at the Tucheng Detention Center in Taipei County, Taiwan, on Sept. 11, 2009

It was a dramatic fall from grace for the man once called the "Son of Taiwan." Former President Chen Shui-bian and First Lady Wu Shu-chen were sentenced to life in prison by the Taipei District Court on Friday, nine years after Chen became the first politician from Taiwan's long-time opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to take the island's top post. Chen, 58, and his wife were both charged with embezzlement, bribery, money laundering and forgery and fined $15.3 million for their mishandling of a special state fund and land deals. Chen's son was also sentenced to two-and-a-half years for money laundering, and his daughter-in-law to one year and eight months.

Chen, who has been held at the Taipei Detention Center since late December, did not show up to court to hear the verdict on Friday afternoon. In August of last year, Chen admitted to his wife's wiring over $20 million to overseas bank accounts, but insisted they were political donations and that she did so without his knowledge. He continues to claim innocence, and will appeal, according to a statement released by Chen Shui-bian's office on Wednesday.

As they were awaiting the judge's ruling, over a hundred of Chen's supporters held yellow banners that read "Free A-bian [Chen's nickname]" outside the court. Some have threatened action if he will continue to be detained. "His detention is a controversy," says political commentator Antonio Chiang, "because he was only charged with corruption, not murder, and is a former president."

Prosecutors said they detained him last year because they feared he would collude with other suspects. Chen has maintained that he is a victim of "political persecution" by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), which favors closer ties with China. During his detention, Chen has gone on prolonged hunger strikes and wrote a memoir to draw sympathy for his case. His defense team asserts that rules regarding political expense funds and donations have always been vague, and that Chen is innocent.

Chen was the first politician in Taiwan to work his way up from poverty to the country's highest office. Before entering politics, he was a maritime lawyer who defended Taiwan's democracy activists. After Taiwan formed its first opposition party, the DPP, in 1986, he was the first DPP politician to be elected president. During his two terms as president from 2000-2008, he promoted greater autonomy from China for the self-ruling island, but never declared de jure independence. In remarks published Thursday in Neo Formosa Weekly, a pro-independence web magazine, Chen asserted that now is the best time to declare independence.

It's not a very likely prospect. Taiwan's current President Ma Ying-jeou's friendly policy towards China has been a big contrast from Chen, who was often deemed a troublemaker. Since coming to office last May, Ma has forged closer economic ties with China through establishing direct transportation and opening up tourism and investment to the Chinese. But Ma's popularity has suffered a big blow recently from public dissatisfaction with the government's relief efforts after a disastrous typhoon hit the island a month ago. It left over 700 dead and missing and over 7000 homeless. A new premier and Cabinet were named on Thursday as a result. Chen's verdict now tips the scales back toward the ruling party again. "It will rescue Ma Ying-jeou," says political commentator Antonio Chiang. "It's very good for the KMT, and of course, good for Taiwan's democracy."