- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 12, 2009

TAIPEI, Taiwan | A Taiwan court sentenced former President Chen Shui-bian to life in prison after convicting him on graft charges Friday, a spectacular fall from grace for a man who rose to power on promises to end decades of corruption and deepen the island’s de facto independence.

The conviction, which will automatically be appealed, marks a watershed in Taiwan’s turbulent political history, and is a crucial test for the island’s still-evolving democracy.

It also sets the stage for a deepening conflict between the ruling Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with China, and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which Chen helped found in 1986.

The Chen verdict was announced as several hundred of his enraged supporters demonstrated outside the downtown Taipei court, carrying signs saying “Free him” and “Chen’s innocent.”

With Chen, 58, absent from the courtroom - he chose to stay in the suburban Taipei jail where he has been detained since December - a three-judge panel declared that the former leader was guilty of wide-ranging graft offenses.

Chen had been charged with embezzling $3.15 million during his 2000-2008 presidency from a special presidential fund, receiving bribes worth at least $9 million in connection with a government land deal, laundering some of the money through Swiss bank accounts, and forging documents.

The court also convicted Chen’s wife, Wu Shu-chen, on related graft offenses, and sentenced her as well to life in prison. The two were also fined a total of $15.2 million, a court spokesman said.

Chi Yen-lieh, an official at the jail where Chen is being held, said he seemed calm after hearing the verdict. “His mood was stable and there was no emotional change,” he said.

Wu, who has been free on her own recognizance, was not in court.

For the past year, the Chen legal saga has riveted the island of 23 million people, which held its first direct presidential election in 1996, less than a decade after it began dismantling four decades of strict one-party Nationalist rule.

Chen, Taiwan’s first non-Nationalist leader since Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists in 1949, rode to power in 2000 on a promise to clean up decades of Nationalist corruption and attracted international attention for his strong resistance to China’s claim that Taiwan was part of its territory.

But he quickly fell afoul of the Nationalists’ majority in the legislature and his purported tendency to play fast and loose with accepted procedures.

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