Taipei: A Taiwan court imposed a life sentence on former president Chen Shui-bian after convicting him of corruption on Friday, marking a watershed in the island's turbulent political history.
Chen's wife Wu Shu-chen was also convicted of corruption and received the same life sentence, said court spokesman Huang Chun-ming.
"Chen Shui-bian and Wu Shu-chen were sentenced to life in prison because Chen has done grave damage to the country, and Wu, because she was involved in corruption deals as the first lady," Huang said.
He said the two had also been fined a total of NT$500 million (USD 15.2 million).
The verdicts came as hundreds Chen supporters demonstrated outside a downtown Taipei court, holding flags and banners saying "free him" and "Chen's innocent”.
Huang said a three-judge Taipei District Court panel found the 58-year-old Chen guilty on multiple corruption counts.
Chen was charged with embezzling USD 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.
Chen chose not to attend Friday's proceedings. He has been confined to a suburban Taipei jail since late December, after prosecutors convinced judges not to free him following his indictment.
Chen's legal travails have galvanized this 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 rule.
Most Taiwanese were convinced that Chen was guilty of at least some of the charges against him, though some of his supporters believed his anti-China views played a role in his prosecution, and that he was unfairly confined to jail during his trial.
Critics point to a decision to change the three-judge Taipei District Court panel trying Chen after it originally freed him on his own recognizance following his indictment last December. The new judges accepted the prosecutors' argument that he constituted a flight risk, and that if freed, he could collude with alleged co-conspirators.
President Ma Ying-jeou and senior Justice Ministry officials have repeatedly rejected charges of unfairness, saying that Chen's prosecution represents a validation of the democratic principle that no man — regardless of his rank — stands above the law in Taiwan.
Chen, Taiwan's first non-Nationalist Party 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 to deepen Taiwan's de facto independence.
But he quickly fell afoul of the Nationalists' majority in the legislature and his alleged tendency to play fast and loose with accepted procedures, including his lax management of a special presidential fund, meant to promote Taiwan's overseas interests.
Complicating matters was China's outright hostility, based on Chen's pro-independence views, and his tense relations with the United States, Taiwan's most important foreign partner.
Washington saw Chen's support for independence as raising the possibility of a war with Beijing, and pressured him to desist — with only limited success.
After leaving office, Chen's anti-China policies were quickly jettisoned by Ma, who has made improved relations with Beijing the hallmark of his administration.
First Published: Friday, September 11, 2009, 15:10