- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TAIPEI, TAIWAN (AP) - Taiwan’s defiant former president stood in the dock of a Taipei courtroom Thursday, as his multimillion dollar graft trial began amid high security and his claims that the charges were politically motivated.

Chen Shui-bian, 58, faces life imprisonment if convicted on charges of embezzling 104 million New Taiwan dollars ($3.12 million) from a special presidential fund, receiving bribes worth at least $9 million in connection with a government land procurement deal, and laundering part of the funds by wiring the money to Swiss bank accounts.

He has insistently denied the charges against him, saying they are part of an effort by President Ma Ying-jeou and his Nationalist Party to curry favor with rival China.

Chen was replaced by Ma last May after serving eight years in office.

Arriving at the courthouse from the suburban Taipei detention facility where he has been held since December, Chen looked wan and thin in a dark blue suit and tie-less white shirt, as dozens of police officers maintained order. The proceedings against him began with a formal check of his identity and a reading of the charges against him.

Thursday’s trial follows two months of pretrial hearings to review key elements in the case against Chen, as well as others ensnared in the wide-ranging corruption probe against him _ his wife Wu Shu-chen, their son, daughter-in-law and several aides and associates.

Millions of Taiwanese have been engrossed by the spectacle of the former leader being accused of the same type of corruption he pledged to eradicate when he first ran for president in 2000.

The indictments against him and his wife outline a complex scheme in which Chen allegedly allowed Wu to take bribes from businesspeople seeking political favors.

Chen’s defense strategy has been to profess ignorance of those alleged transactions, stressing that the former first lady alone managed millions of dollars in political donations and other funds.

On Wednesday Chen’s office released a statement in the former leader’s name, alleging that all the proceedings against him were part of a deliberate government effort to silence dissent and placate China, which still sees Taiwan as part of its territory, 60 years after the sides split amid civil war. Chen maintained a strong pro-independence stance for the self-governed island during his two terms in power.

“The judicial system in Taiwan has become a mere tool for political suppression and persecution,” the statement said. “In order to gain favor and protection from the Beijing authorities, the Nationalist government has launched an all-out purge and cleansing against the former … administration.”

Since taking office, Ma has moved aggressively to improve relations with China, particularly on the commercial front.

Aside from hitting out at Ma, Chen’s defense strategy has also involved professing ignorance of the transactions he is alleged to have carried out, stressing the former first lady alone managed millions of dollars in political donations and other funds.

On the first day of the trial, expectations about its outcome were mixed.

While analysts say much of the pretrial evidence against Chen seems overwhelming, they suggest prosecutors will be hard pressed to present concrete proof to convict him of taking bribes.

“There are many gray areas that Chen could use for his defense,” said political commentator Huang Chih-hsien.

“Unlike America, Hong Kong or Singapore, we cannot convict a politician simply for failing to prove his wealth has come from legitimate means,” Huang said. “The prosecutor must also prove that a deal was struck to hand out political favors in exchange for bribes.”

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