Taiwan puts former president on trial

March 26, 2009 12:00 am

, TAIPEI, Mar 26 – Taiwan put former president Chen Shui-bian on trial Thursday for corruption, the first of several charges that could jail him for life — and that he calls a witch-hunt driven by his tough stance on China.

Chen was brought into a packed Taipei courtroom in handcuffs, becoming the island’s first ex-president ever to stand trial, in a case full of political and family intrigue that has gripped Taiwan for months.

The combative 58-year-old is being tried on bribery allegations but the trial is just one of several ahead as Chen is also accused of embezzlement, money-laundering, influence peddling and extortion.

Chen has repeatedly denied the charges and insisted that he is being persecuted by the government that succeeded him in power last year, led by China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou.

Ma has worked swiftly to build closer ties with China, which considers the island part of its territory that must eventually be reunited with the mainland — and has threatened to invade if it ever formally declares independence.

The two sides had had virtually no direct links since the island split from China in 1949 after a civil war, and Ma’s new policies mark an about-face from Chen’s pro-independence rhetoric, which repeatedly irked Beijing.

Chen has insisted he is the victim of a witch-hunt. Government prosecutors announced the launch of a corruption investigation against him just hours after he stepped down as president last May and lost his immunity.

"I admit, I have advocated Taiwanese independence in my political career spanning more than 30 years," the former president said at a pre-trial hearing.

"If you want to lock me up till I die… if the court and the prosecution join hands to persecute me, I resign myself to this."

But Chen’s wife, son and daughter-in-law have all pleaded guilty to money laundering already, three of 11 people so far who have admitted to some kind of offence in connection with the overall case against the former leader.

Thursday’s trial was to open with testimony from an aide of Chen’s wife Wu Shu-chen, who allegedly arranged for a businessman to give the Chen family 400 million Taiwan dollars (11.42 million US) to seal a lucrative land deal.

The ex-president has said that his wife accepted the money without his knowledge but insisted it was a political donation, not a kickback.

He has also admitted that his wife wired 20 million US dollars abroad from campaign funds without his knowledge, but denied laundering money.

Some legal experts have expressed concern about the handling of the case, including the court’s decision to detain Chen before his trial and to switch the presiding judge.

Last month, a court rejected his latest appeal against detention, arguing that he may collaborate with other defendants to destroy evidence against him if freed.

Dates for the other trials have not yet been set. He faces life in prison if convicted on all counts.

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