Monday, May 05, 2014

Troubling police action as Ma seeks to silence activists

Law-enforcement authorities are using measures that raise serious questions about the intentions of the Ma government

Well, it looks like the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government is making good on its threat to turn the full weight of the law, and then some, against the activists who have defied its authority in recent months.

No sooner had the Ministry of the Interior announced last week that the National Police Agency (NPA) had been granted new powers of “preventive arrest” against repeat offenders in an enlarged and vague list of “crimes” — which unsurprisingly apply to the activities of the Sunflower and the anti-nuclear movements, among others — than young Taiwanese were complaining of being harassed by police officers who pulled them aside, asked to look into their backpacks, and requested they show their I.D. This happened at various locations, including in the MRT, where a young man with a DSLR was asked by security why he was “loitering,” to an employee at NTU Hospital who was quizzed by police after exiting, and then going back inside, a 7-Eleven convenience store. Their theory was that he had spotted them and sought to hide inside; his more mundane explanation was that he had forgotten to buy something. Just to be safe he was not lying about his profession, the police officers escorted him all the way to the hospital. In some instances, police were reported to have turned their video cameras on the young individuals. In most cases, the people who were targeted happened to wear T-shirts or paraphernalia associated with protest movements, such as sunflowers and various ensigns. Needless to say, such actions were highly intrusive, and in most cases downright unnecessary. And they have the very bad smell of a police state.

Things got a little more serious and worrying today when a handful of plainclothes police officers approached Hung Chung-yen (洪崇晏), a well-known figure among social activists, near Taipei Main Station, handcuffed him, and confiscated his cell phone. Hung, a NTU student who is also known as 八六 (“86”) because of his height (1.86m), protested the officers’ attempt to seize his phone (they claimed they wanted to “hold it for him”). He was quick witted enough to hit the speed dial so that the person at the other end could hear the entire conversation. A young passerby also filmed the incident. In the footage, Hung is heard asking the cops under which law they are entitled to seize his cell phone (in my own judgment, they would probably have used the occasion to scan his SIM card and get a snapshot of his phone contacts). Soon afterwards, the plainclothes shoved him into … a cab, which drove him to a police station.

As one of the leaders of a protest outside the Zhongzheng First Police Precinct on April 11, Hung had twice been summoned to appear before police to explain himself (he stands accused of a variety of crimes, most of which, such as “mob violence,” “public endangerment” and “intimidation,” are bogus). As he didn’t show up — like other suspects Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) and Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), Hung and his lawyer argue that they will only give statements to prosecutors, not to the police, which they say is not “neutral” given its role in the controversies — police issued an arrest warrant against him on May 2, and nabbed him on May 5.

Regardless of whether police had a right to seize Hung, their technique left a lot to be desired. Above all, it was highly improper — and very likely illegal — for police officers to rely on a taxi to conduct an individual to a police station. In most civilized countries, if a police vehicle isn’t readily available, police will call for one and wait with the suspect until it arrives. There is a reason why police vehicles bear clear identifications and distinct numbers. Among other things, this is to ensure that people are not kidnapped by criminals who pretend to be law enforcement officers (I would be especially wary of this given the connection between a taxi company in Taipei and a well-known gangster who, incidentally, showed up accompanied by two of President Ma’s sisters at a very blue, and in many ways red, rally on Sunday). (Photo by the author)

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