Monday, December 30, 2013

Taiwan’s courts as fast-food joints, or tools of repression? (中文 link at bottom)

Facing growing public discontent and rising activism, the government is using the courts to silence the opposition. Now it won’t even give suspects the chance to explain themselves before a judge

Sun Chih-yu, a student at National Tsing Hua University, saw her chance on November 13 to express her anger at the government’s ill treatment of laid-off workers from Hualon Corp for the past sixteen years. Premier Jiang Yi-huah was in town, attending a screening of the documentary Beyond Beauty: Taiwan from Above. As Jiang was exiting the theater after the showing, Sun lobbed a shoe at him … and missed. The shoe fell harmlessly next to the premier and Sun was taken away.

One month later, she received a notice informing her that she was guilty of violations to the Social Order Maintenance Act and had to pay a fine of NT$5,000. No day in court, no way to defend herself before a judge. Guilty. Sun has since decided to appeal.

In a bid to unclutter the courts, Taiwanese judges and prosecutors occasionally use an “expedited process” to deal with minor infractions — say, woman caught stealing bubble gum at a convenience store. The practice makes sense and can help alleviate the burden on the court system. Our imaginary thief is levied a fine, and perhaps there’s a note in her file, but court appearances, witnesses, judges, lawyers, are unnecessary.

But here’s where things get interesting. The court system has begun using the “expedited process” for less clear-cut cases involving (according to the indictment document) much more serious crimes and, presumably, heavier fines.

Sun’s case is one such instance. A much more worrying one involves the indictment on December 24 of twenty members, including six students, of the Yuanli Self-Help Organization against Wind Turbines, over an April 29 protest at a construction site.

To make a long story short: The villagers, the majority of them farmers, claim they were never properly consulted over the project and that the wind turbines, which are taller than the Statue of Liberty, are being built much too close to their homes. A total of 14 are to be built along the 2km coastline. German wind power firm InfraVest, along with government agencies including the Bureau of Energy and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, deny that this is the case and have forged ahead. Facing delays caused by the protests and bleeding money as it fails to meet its deadline, InfraVest has hired a private security firm, whose abuse of local residents, sometimes leading to injuries, has been largely ignored by the police, which itself has repeatedly brutalized members of the self-help organization, prompting the grilling of a senior National Police Administration (NPA) official at the Legislative Yuan earlier this year.

On April 29, the self-help organization held a sit-in protest on a road leading to the site of one of the wind turbines. As tensions rose, many were handcuffed and dragged away by police, including one student who was documenting the events. Unsurprisingly, InfraVest has filed a lawsuit against the protesters. More disturbing is the decision by the court on December 24 to use the “expedited process” in its indictment of the 20 protesters who were taken away on April 29. 

As with Sun, this means that the indicted will not have a chance to appear in court to defend themselves. And this time the crime is not disturbances to public order, but the much more serious (and ludicrous) charge of “false imprisonment,” which is akin to holding someone hostage. Prosecutors are still doing the math, and the nature of the fine has yet to be announced, though they will likely be much steeper. Furthermore, the implications for those who are held guilty could be much more far-reaching, as the offense will certainly appear in their criminal record. Chen Pin-an, one of the members of the self-help alliance, is herself a lawyer. Another one is still a law student at National Taiwan University (NTU). One can only imagine what the impact of a record of holding someone hostage will have on her ability to practice law in future.

Given the potentially disastrous consequences, it is inconceivable that those individuals would not be given a chance to defend their actions before a judge. This is certainly not as trivial an infraction as stealing a pack of gum.

Not that any of this should be surprising. The whole case transcends the pros and cons of wind power and speaks directly to the quality of Taiwan’s democracy. Which is why the largely ignored Yuanli controversy is a much bigger issue. The entire process has been a flawed one, from the gerrymandering of an initial environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the lack of (and fabricated) consultations with local villagers, bogus “experimental hearings” to the involvement of a private security firm whose staff, as I saw first-hand when I visited the site in June, have behaved like thugs high on betel nut and tobacco. 

So far, a total of 36 individuals have been indicted for their actions in Yuanli, including 18 students.

All of this means that this is not a clear-cut case, one that the courts can dispense with through an expedited process and fines. The decision to deny the so-called offenders the right to defend themselves in court (the organization’s lawyers are in the process of appealing) gives the impression that the court system is part of a larger effort to deter the villagers and their supporters by threatening financial pain, something that the soft authoritarian regime in Singapore has perfected to an art form. Perhaps it is also an attempt to silence the opponents, to deny them the voice that would draw more attention to what is already turning into a fiasco (InfraVest could very well sue the government, which granted approval, if it is unable to complete the project and goes under financially as a result).

The Sun and Yuanli cases raise serious questions, chief among them the seemingly arbitrary manner in which judges and prosecutors decide to expedite the process and impose fines. Where does one draw the line? Based on which understanding of the category of crimes? How is the fine calculated? And under what circumstances can suspects legitimately be denied the right to defend themselves in the courts? Given the growing number of protests that are occurring over a variety of controversial issues, such as the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement to the Taoyuan Aerotropolis megaproject, such precedents will make it very tempting for police, prosecutors, and the courts to resort to similar tactics, if only to deter future activism. This is a very serious matter, one that is directly related to the quality of Taiwan’s democracy and rule of law. Bypassing the court process or imposing summary judgments are not options.

As the protests intensify, the government could very well claim that the courts are overwhelmed, that it has no choice and must therefore “expedite” the process. But it has a choice — it can choose not to prosecute, as the great, great majority of acts committed by the protesters constitute nothing more than misdemeanor. Yet, more and more I’m hearing protesters say something like, “I was a student protester during the democratization years [late 1980s to early 1990s] and we never got charged for what we did. Today, we get indictments, court summons …”

(Photo by the author: Elderly resident of Yuanli during a protest in front of the Executive Yuan)

NEW! A Chinese-language version of this article was published in The News Lens on Jan. 3 and can be accessed here.

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