If lawyers and civic groups have their way, Taiwan’s outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou, who leaves office today, (May 19) could well follow his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, into prison. While Ma will be protected in civilian life by eight to 12 security officers, his team of legal advisors might need to be even bigger.
Taiwanese lawyers and civic groups have got the knives out now that Ma just about to lose his presidential immunity. A number of corruption allegations stem from Ma’s term as Taipei mayor (1998–2006), and also from allegations of an illegal wiretap of the legislative speaker during Ma’s presidency (2008-2016) appears set to earn him trouble.
It is a dramatic comedown for Ma, elected president as a fresh, western-educated technocrat to replace the scandal-scarred Chen. But it appears that like their peers in other democracies in the region such as South Korea and the Philippines, Taiwan’s leaders tend to sail close to the wind: Chen is currently on medical parole after serving six years of a 20-year prison term for several convictions on corruption charges, whereas Chen’s predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, was spared a similar fate in 2014 when prosecutors after years of close pursuit in a corruption case let him off the hook because of his advanced age of 91 years.
“The illegal wiretapping case appears to be the first case Ma will have to face soon after his leaving the Presidency,” said Su Yen-tu, a professor at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s foremost judicial research institution. “The other corruption allegations against Mr. Ma have yet to be formally investigated by the prosecutors.”
Ma has lately lamented that the incoming Tsai government has actually already begun his political persecution. In late April, lawyers Huang Ti-ying and Cheng Wen-lung, along with several Tsai-leaning civic groups such as the Taiwan Association of University Professors, requested the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office to prohibit Ma from leaving the country amid allegations of abuse of power and corruption. They accused the departing chief executive of profiting from the Farglory Group in the massively scandalous, now-suspended, Taipei Dome project to build a multipurpose sports stadium during his term as Taipei mayor, They also allege that he instigated former prosecutor-general Huang Shih-ming in 2013 to leak details in a wiretapping investigation into the former legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng.
The groups argue that the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office must follow the precedent set during its investigation into former president Chen’s case. They say Ma matches the criteria used to detain Chen, including strong suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, substantial national influence and possibility of flight. Indeed, the very day Chen’s presidency ended, the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office named him as a defendant in an abuse of power case, while informing the Presidential Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Immigration Agency, National Police Agency and Coast Guard Administration that they must report to prosecutors if they learn that he plans to leave the country. Chen was formally detained six months later.
Although the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office on May 14th turned down the request to restrict Ma from leaving, Ma can hardly feel relaxed.
“In the wiretapping case, Ma might well be ruled a co-perpetrator, because if the messenger [prosecutor-general Huang] was found guilty [and sentenced to an NT$457,000 fine in 2015], how can the recipient not be?” asked Chen In-Chin, director of the National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government.
Among the most precarious corruption allegations against Ma, Chen said, is one over the Taipei City Government’s land expropriation to build MeHAS City, a sprawling housing complex, in New Taipei City’s Sindian District. The Taipei city government in 1991 expropriated 239 plots of land in Sindian to build a MRT depot, but the depot construction then left unused substantial areas of that land. In what seems straight from the textbooks of shady urban re-zoning schemes, then- Ma in 2007 contracted out a project to build MeHAS City on the remaining land to Radium Life Tech Co.
“It has not been a secret that the Radium boss was a friend of Ma’s,” Chen said. “Radium used to be a small company before it was awarded projects by the Taipei City government under Ma, and without Ma, it would likely still be small.”
Professor Chen added that although the MeHAS expropriation was ruled unconstitutional last year, Ma appears protected by the fact that regulations in the 1990s were murky, with the authorities then even lacking a detailed city map. Particularly eyebrow-raising in the Ma-MeHAS context, he said, was that the constitutional court’s ruling last year was followed by the court’s Vice President Su Yeong-chin in his concurring opinion arguing that the ruling shall not lay the groundwork for any new charges. Su happens to be another high school buddy of Ma’s.
“Members of the legal community including me believe that Su did this to protect Ma,” Chen said.
It is safe to presume that Ma has these days been reminded that after the Taipei District Court had cleared Chen Shui-bian on one charge in 2010, Ma, as the incumbent, called for the weeding out of “unqualified judges who produce rulings counter to public expectations.” A few days later, the Supreme Court handed down a hefty 19-year prison sentence for Chen and his wife, Wu Shu-jen, on two other convictions.
Professor Chen believes that this infamous fondness of Taiwan’s political cast for prosecuting each other complicates the leadership of the day’s recruitment efforts. For example, he said, incoming president Tsai had a hard time recruiting her cabinet, including her designated premier, Lin Chuan. Lin served as minister of finance under Chen Shui-bian and like other members of the Chen Cabinet had his office raided by prosecutors after Ma replaced Chen as Taiwan’s leader.
“The people still do not believe in the neutrality of our judiciary. Our democracy will need one or two generations to overcome this,” Chen said.