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INTERVIEW: Rights lawyer says Taiwan democracy under threat

By Jenny W. Hsu, Taipei Times
December 15, 2008

Taiwan still stands as a beacon of hope for the rule of law and democratic development in Asia but recent government- related human rights violations have caused its rays to shine less brightly, said David Kilgour, a Canadian human rights lawyer, urging the public to closely monitor the administration in order to safeguard the country’s democracy.

Kilgour, the vice president of the Taiwan-Canadian Friendship Group in the Canadian parliament, a well-known international human rights lawyer and activist and a former prosecutor, was one of the invited speakers at the International Forum on the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of human Rights held in Kaohsiung City on Thursday.

Citing the example of police brutality and riots last month during the visit of Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), Kilgour said many friends of Taiwan were concerned about dramatic deteriorations in the rule-of-law, human dignity and democratic practices in Taiwan in recent months.

“To tell people that they couldn’t wear ‘I love Taiwan’ T-shirts or hold the national flag was ridiculous,” he said in an interview with Taipei Times.

“I hope President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), a Harvard-trained man, will understand that democracy is more than about having elections every four years. Democracy is about things such as allowing people to protest peacefully,” he said.

It has been reported that more than 100 people, including protestors, lawmakers and policemen, were hospitalized for various injuries in protests during Chen’s visit. One police officer had a stroke and a television reporter was badly beaten.

Kilgour also voiced concerns over the “preventative detention” allowed by the Taiwanese legal system in which a number of former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) figures, including former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), were incarcerated before a formal indictment had been handed down.

Quoting Ma’s Harvard law professor Jerome Cohen, Kilgour said preventative detention should be rarely used, stressing it should only be invoked in infrequent exceptions when the person is denied bail and has been deemed by the court as a potential flight risk or presents the potential of colluding with others.

He urged Minister of Justice Wang Ching-feng (王清峰) to promptly provide substantive answers to inquiries raised by many legal scholars and human rights activists both in Taiwan and abroad.

“It is surprising to many that Mr. Ma, a Harvard law graduate, does not understand these things. I hope that he will show us from now on that he does understand the nature of an open rule of law society,” Kilgour said.

He also urged Ma to disclose his reason why he objected to a visit by the Dalai Lama, calling the rejection a “slight to the 23 million people in Taiwan.”

In a press conference with foreign media last month, when asked about a possible visit by the much revered Tibetan spiritual leader, Ma said “the timing is not right.”

The answer appeared to be an about face to the support he voiced for the Tibetan movement in April during the presidential campaign.

Taiwan, along with the rest of international community, must not be discouraged from condemning Beijing’s human rights abuses for fear of harming trade relations with China, Kilgour said.

History has shown that countries that have publicly criticized actions have not suffered strained economic ties with Beijing, citing Denmark, France and the Netherlands for example.

“Whenever someone is told they were going to lose business if they meet the Dalai Lama, those [threats] almost all prove to be bluffs later on,” he said.

Taiwan as a beacon of rule of law and democracy is “shining less brightly” now and the government and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), especially, must try harder to polish Taiwan’s image especially given its totalitarian past, he said.

“Democracy is more than elections. It includes civil society and checks on any government in office in any national capital,” Kilgour said. “The people of Taiwan should keep an eye on the Ma and any other government you elect to ensure that your hard-won democracy and dignity of all Taiwanese are strengthened, rather than focusing on appeasing the party-state in Beijing.”

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