Nigel Li is convinced that the 2009 trial of Chen Shui-bian, ex-president of Taiwan, set a milestone in the young democracy’s transition to the rule of law. “In traditional Confucian thinking, the president is more than an elected leader; he carries a life-long mandate from heaven,” said Li, a constitutional scholar and CEO of the Taipei-based law firm Lee & Li, at the October 6 Timothy A. Gelatt Dialogue on the Rule of Law in Asia. “The fact that an ex-president now also must face justice signifies how far Taiwan has progressed.”

Wang Jaw-perng, an expert on criminal procedure at National Taiwan University in Taipei, agreed. For him, however, the process of the trial left much to be desired. “A lot of people in Taiwan believe Chen Shui-bian is corrupt, but they also think he did not get fair procedural treatments.”

The trial for embezzlement, receiving bribes, money laundering, and other offenses had been the most spectacular in the island’s history, said Professor Jerome Cohen, co-director of NYU School of Law’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, the host of Tuesday’s program in Greenberg Lounge. A Taipei district court on September 11 convicted Chen and passed down life sentences to him and his wife. The decision is now on de novo appellate review, which could last many years.

Chen Shui-bian rose from humble roots to the pinnacle of power by winning a historic election in 2000. His Democratic Progressive Party, running on a pro-independence platform, ended the Kuomintang Party’s half-century rule, which had endured since the former Nationalist government of China was defeated by the Communists on the mainland and fled to Taiwan. Central to Chen’s successful campaign were attacks on the establishment’s corruption. Ironically, allegations of Chen’s own financial misdeeds emerged. His family and associates were prosecuted while Chen was still in office. After he stepped down in 2008, a constitutional tribunal ruled that he was no longer protected by presidential immunity, and he was then investigated with a vigor that aroused complaints of being politically driven. The current Kuomintang president, Ma Ying-jeou (LL.M. ’76), denies involvement.

There have been allegations of irregularities in Chen’s criminal proceedings. Television cameras captured Chen in handcuffs being taken into pre-trial detention last fall, an event his supporters say was choreographed to humiliate him. Other complaints include the replacement of a sympathetic judge, disciplinary actions against Chen’s lawyer, and, most seriously, prolonged pre-trial detention without convincing justification.

Cohen said the implications of the case emanated well beyond the fortunes of the former first family. A deep rift developed among the Taiwanese people, and they now must go beyond partisan politics and find common trust in law and the rule of law. Li agreed. “I hope Chen would receive a fair trial, not as an emperor nor as an enemy of state.”

The annual Timothy A. Gelatt Dialogue was established in honor of the former NYU School of Law professor who died in 1994. This was the 15th year of the program.

Watch the full lecture (1hr 6 min):

Watch the Q&A (1hr 31 min):

Posted on October 13, 2009