Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Sunflower Movement leaders could get years in jail

A decision to slap harsh sentences on the leadership would almost certainly spark a new round of social unrest. Will a government known for its vindictiveness and overreliance on the courts to deter dissent resist the temptation?

Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) and Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), two of the main leaders in the Sunflower Movement that has occupied the Legislative Yuan since March 18, could be prosecuted on five and six counts respectively, with the most serious offense resulting in imprisonment up to seven years for Chen.

In all, the Ministry of Justice has listed 34 defendants in the case. The charges against Lin and Chen include “Offenses Against Personal Liberty” (妨害自由), “Offenses of Interference with Public Functions” (妨害公務), “intimidation” (恐嚇) and “malfeasance” (瀆職). 

Lin Fei-fan at a court appearance in late 2013
The Sunflower Movement, which has turned into an umbrella organization for various civic groups, launched its occupation in protest against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which they said had been negotiated in secret with China and had not received proper input from society or review at the legislature. The Black Island Youth Alliance, one of the initial groups, launched protests and public lectures almost immediately after Taiwanese negotiators returned from Shanghai with the text of the agreement in June 2013. The decision to escalate and occupy the LY came after months of government intransigence, infighting at the legislature, and a sudden announcement by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that the pact had been duly evaluated (review had not begun) and would be put to a vote which the KMT, holding a majority of seats, was assured of winning.

A splinter group from the movement also briefly occupied the Executive Yuan on March 23. Overnight police efforts to remove the activists from the building — the seat of the government — resulted in several injuries and accusations of disproportionate police action. Lawyers providing pro bono services to the movement have begun collecting evidence and are expected to take legal action against the National Police Administration (NPA). On March 30, an estimated 350,000 people answered a call by the movement for a mass rally on Ketagalan Blvd and around the legislature. The turnout was well beyond the organizer's expectations.

On April 7 the Movement announced that the activists would end the nearly three-week occupation and evacuate the legislative chambers by 6pm on April 10. 

As the occupation nears its end, there have been fears among the activists and their supporters that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration could seek to punish them severely for their actions, which sparked one of the most serious constitutional crises in recent years. Throughout 2013, the government often relied on the judicial system in an attempt to deter mounting civic activism over several controversies, chief among them forced evictions and home demolitions (even before the occupation, there were several pending cases against Lin and Chen, and a team of lawyers has been helping them with their defense).

There was reason to fear that a harsh punishment might be in the works after Minister of Justice Luo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪) commented on the charges on April 8. Luo, who served as President Ma’s attorney during his trial over the alleged misuse of his special funds while he was mayor of Taipei, opined that the activists must face the full weight of the law. “We are all equal before the law of the Republic of China,” she said. “There are no different sets of laws for students and non-students.”

Luo’s remarks attracted derision among supporters of the movement, who were quick to point out the lenient treatment given Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) officials arrested for corruption or the light sentences given to a group of soldiers who were responsible for the death of an Army conscript in July 2013. Many others also mentioned the inaction by the courts and the NPA since the return to Taiwan in June 2013 of Chang An-le (張安樂), a gangster who had been on the nation’s most-wanted list since he absconded in 1996. Besides engaging in pro-unification activities across the nation, Chang, who was released on NT$1 million (US$33,000) bail hours after his return, has repeatedly threatened social activists, NGOs and politicians and injected himself into the CSSTA controversy on April 1 with a counter-protest to “retake” the legislature, during which some of his gangsters physically assaulted a number of activists from the other side.

The big question now is whether the courts will indeed seek severe punishment and imprisonment for Lin and Chen, two graduate students who were most responsible for the Sunflowers’ non-violent actions against the government. Many fear that Ma’s vindictive nature, added to the loss of face that the movement caused him and his administration, would compel him to make an example of them — not that we’d imply that the judicial system here is subject to political interference from the Cabinet! Should it choose to do so, the government could find itself in a position where it stands accused of holding political prisoners, something not seen in Taiwan since the lifting of Martial Law in the late 1980s.

Conversely, and given the likelihood that harsh sentences would exacerbate social pressures and unleash another round of activism (given the pair’s popularity among high school and university students, such an outcome is almost inevitable), it is possible that the courts would issue suspended sentences or commute those to a fine. Another option would be for Ma, who severely needs to revamp his image after all this, to grant them a pardon in extremis.

Whether society is forced to escalate again and take extreme measures rests with whether it will stick to the promises made to the Sunflower Movement on the handling of the CSSTA and how the judiciary deals with the leaders of the movement. The ball is in their camp. (Photos by the author)

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