Page last updated at 17:42 GMT, Friday, 11 September 2009 18:42 UK

Taiwan divided by ex-leader's conviction

Chen supporter outside his sentencing
Chen supporters have alleged the case was politically motivated

By Cindy Sui
BBC News, Taipei

Across Taiwan, the reaction to a Taipei court's decision to sentence former president Chen Shui-bian to life in prison for corruption differed widely.

But analysts say one thing is for sure - the heavy sentence will deepen long-existing hostilities between the island's ruling party Kuomintang (KMT) and main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

"The sentence was heavier than expected. The confrontation between the blue side (KMT) and green side (DPP) will be greater than before as a result of this," said Hsu Yung-ming, a political science professor at Soochow University, referring to the colours of the two parties.

The case grabbed the attention of Taiwan's 23 million people from the moment Chen was arrested in November 2008.

He committed wrongdoings, so he should admit his mistakes, especially since he took so much money
Lee Hao-ping
Taipei resident

It was unprecedented in the island's short history as a democracy.

The first president elected from an opposition party, Chen had vowed to root out decades of corruption under the former one-party system, but was later accused of corruption himself.

Ordinary Taiwanese people are divided in the way they view the handling of the case.

While most people believe Chen is guilty of at least some of the charges against him - which include embezzling from a special state affairs fund for the president, accepting bribes and money laundering - many believe the way his case has been handled reflects Taiwanese politics, rather than justice at work.

"It's related to politics," said Taipei resident Tseng You-yi.

"They have to lock up Chen Shui-bian. He's a leading figure of the DPP, and the KMT doesn't want the DPP to rise again."

Chen's supporters, including long-time Taiwanese who do not identify with the KMT which came from China at the end of the civil war in 1949, believe the case is simply political revenge.

Chen Shui-bian
Chen Shui-bian had argued that presidential fund rules were unclear

They said Chen has been treated unfairly and believe corrupt officials in the ruling party should also be tried.

However, critics of Chen, including the tens of thousands of people who held sit-in protests demanding his resignation over corruption allegations in 2006, see the case as a sign of progress: even a former president can be punished.

"The verdict is good. He committed wrongdoings, so he should admit his mistakes, especially since he took so much money," said Taipei resident Lee Hao-ping.

"This case will serve as a warning to current and future Taiwanese presidents - that they can't simply do what they want and should not collude with businesses."

Chen insists he is innocent and that the money accrued was from campaign contributions and that Taiwan's vague rules were not clear on how the presidential fund should be used.

Some analysts believe there is some truth to Chen's claims that the case against him is a witch hunt by the current government aimed at pleasing Beijing.

As president, Chen had tried to assert independence for an island which has long ruled itself and yearned for recognition as a nation, but is still considered by China as its territory and barred from the United Nations.

Since Chen left office in May 2008, Taiwan has taken a dramatic shift in policy toward China.

The current administration has launched direct flights and shipping links with Beijing, and welcomed Chinese pandas, tourists, and officials.

Cross-strait relations

These changes were met with fierce protests by some Taiwanese who believe, along with Chen, that close ties with Beijing could jeopardise Taiwan's sovereignty.

"The KMT and President Ma Ying-jeou obviously thought that if they don't put him away, he'll raise trouble for cross-strait relations and for domestic affairs; he still has a lot of supporters," said Shane Lee, a political science professor from Chang Jung Christian University.

The trial has also raised concerns among some legal experts, especially over the switching of the three judges in the middle of the trial after the previous judges allowed Chen to be released on bail.

Taiwan's courts generally do not have juries. Scholars see this as a test of the young democracy's judicial independence.

They point out that the same treatment should be given to corruption officials, regardless of which party is in power.

Chen's wife Wu Shu-chen
Chen's wife has appealed against her conviction and is free on bail

Ironically, at least one of the judges who convicted Chen of misusing the presidential fund acquitted current President Ma Ying-jeou of similar charges of misusing a special mayoral fund when he was Taipei mayor, before Mr Ma was elected president in 2008.

The spokesman for the Taipei District Court, Huang Chun-ming, dismissed such concerns.

"The judges ruled according to law and made independent decisions. There was no political interference," Mr Huang told the BBC.

Chen is expected to appeal against the ruling.

While the other 13 defendants in the case, including Chen's wife, children and former staff, remain free pending their appeals, it is unclear whether Taiwan's courts will set Chen free on 25 September, when his detention hearing is scheduled.

Keeping Chen behind bars may be convenient for the government as it pursues stronger economic ties with Beijing, including a controversial free-trade agreement it hopes to sign next year, analysts said.

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