Taiwan’s Former Leader Held in Graft Probe

TAIPEI ~ A Taiwan court ordered former president Chen Shui-bian locked up on Wednesday in a corruption probe, tightening pressure on the onetime leader whose tenure was marred by allegations of scandal and sleaze.

The court order capped 24 hours of high political drama on this tiny island, which saw the defiant Chen led away in handcuffs, taken to hospital after claiming he had been beaten by police, and then finally put behind bars.

Officials said Chen – whose pro-independence policies in office repeatedly irked China, which claims Taiwan as its territory – had been taken to a detention centre after a court hearing overnight.

Chen was arrested on Tuesday but has yet to be formally charged. He is accused of embezzling around T$15 million (US$450,000) while in office, money laundering, taking bribes and forging documents.

He said on Tuesday that he was being victimised by the China-friendly government, which succeeded him after eight tears in office, because he was the “biggest stone” blocking the island’s reunification with the mainland.

“The case is political persecution and a political witch hunt,” Chen said. “I will not be imprisoned in vain…. Long live Taiwan democracy. Long live Taiwan independence.”

Police tightened security around the detention centre outside Taipei early Wednesday morning after his supporters threatened protests.

Chen’s successor, current President Ma Ying-jeou, has worked quickly to improve ties with China, opening new talks and airline connections between the the mainland and Taiwan, which split in 1949 after a civil war.

On Taiwanese radio, Ma rejected allegations that he was pursuing a political vendetta and said he would not intervene in the case of Chen – the first Taiwan leader ever to be arrested.

“I do not intervene in any case. I respect the judicial system,” the president said. “We do not feel any joy (from his detention).”

China regards Taiwan as its territory – and has threatened to invade if it declares independence – and the stand-off between the two has turned the Strait of Taiwan into one of the world’s most heavily militarised areas.

China has repeatedly blocked Taiwan from joining international organisations, including the United Nations, and only around 20 countries give diplomatic recognition to Taiwan instead of China.

“Ma Ying-jeou wants to put me in jail as a sacrifice to appease China,” Chen told reporters on Tuesday. “I am very honored and proud to play such a role.”

Chen, a populist son of a poor farming family who rose to power on promises of safeguarding a “native Taiwanese” government separate from China, saw the pro-China Ma elected in a landslide in March to replace him.

The vote was a massive repudiation of Chen’s rule, which was dogged by allegations of graft.

His troubles began in 2006 when his son-in-law was arrested for alleged insider trading. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Chen has since admitted submitting falsified expense forms while in office but said the money was used for “secret diplomatic missions” and not for personal benefit.

In a separate money-laundering case, prosecutors say US$21 million was sent to Swiss bank accounts belonging to Chen’s daughter-in-law in 2007. The funds have since been frozen.

Chen has admitted his wife wired $20 million abroad from past campaign funds but said she did so without his knowledge.

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