TAIPEI, Taiwan – A Taiwan court imposed a life sentence on former President Chen Shui-bian after convicting him of corruption Friday, marking a watershed in the island's turbulent political history.
A strong advocate of Taiwanese independence, Chen was hated by China, which claims the island, and despised by the long-dominant Nationalist Party, which called his pro-independence policies dangerous and misguided. A nervous U.S. also thought his push went too far.
Chen served two terms as president in 2000-2008. He was only Taiwan's second directly elected president after decades of one-party rule, and is the first to be indicted and convicted. Most Taiwanese were convinced he was guilty of at least some of the charges he faced, though some supporters believe his anti-China views played a role in his prosecution.
Chen's wife, Wu Shu-chen, was also convicted of corruption and received the same life sentence.
"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," Taipei District Court spokesman Huang Chun-ming said.
The two were also fined a total of $15.2 million, Huang said.
The verdicts were announced as hundreds of Chen supporters demonstrated outside, holding flags and banners saying, "Free him" and "Chen's innocent."
Chen, 58, was charged with embezzling $3.15 million during his 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.
Wu was charged with money laundering and other graft offenses.
Chen chose not to attend Friday's proceedings. He has been confined to a suburban Taipei jail since late December, after prosecutors persuaded judges not to free him following his indictment.
Chi Yen-lieh, an official at Chen's jail, said he seemed calm after hearing the verdict.
"His mood was stable and there was no emotional change," Chi said.
Wu, who has been free on her own recognizance, was not in court.
Chen spokesman Chiang Chih-ming criticized the verdicts as unjust.
"We have expected heavy sentences, but we cannot accept these because this panel has violated ... procedural justice," he said.
Chen's son and daughter-in-law were also convicted on money laundering charges. They were sentenced to 2 1/2 and one-year terms, respectively.
Chen's legal problems have riveted the 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.
Some of his supporters say he was unfairly confined to jail during his trial. They point to a decision to change the three-judge Taipei District Court panel 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.
President Ma Ying-jeou and senior Justice Ministry officials have repeatedly rejected charges of unfairness, saying Chen's prosecution represents a validation of the democratic principle that no one, regardless of rank, stands above the law.
But political scientist Hsu Yung-ming of Taipei's Soochow University blasted Chen's sentence as too severe, saying the trial was tainted by political considerations.
"The life term was handed down long after the media began buzzing with that possibility," he said. "That makes it seem that there was a lot of politics behind the sentence."
Chen was 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. Chen 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.
Complicating matters was China's hostility, based on Chen's pro-independence views — it called him "the scum of the nation" — 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 Chen left office, Ma quickly tossed out his anti-Beijing policies and made improved relations with Beijing the hallmark of his administration.