TAIPEI — The trial of former president Chen Shui-bian hasn't even begun. But as far as the media and many Taiwanese here are concerned, the verdict is already "guilty."

The pro-independence Chen long riled Beijing and Washington with his full-throated defense of Taiwan's autonomy. Now, he's facing a pack of corruption charges that could put him in jail for life.

In a region where there's a wide perception that government officials are above the law (China) or simply ignore it (the Philippines), that's an encouraging sign. Democratic Taiwan is holding its top leaders to account.

But the case has turned into a media circus in which Chen is being tried in the court of public opinion. The island's paparazzi-style media are hounding his family, and TV stations are playing the story like a soap opera — think "Dynasty" meets "Law and Order" — while hyping every twist and turn.

All of this has some wondering if Taiwan's media and judiciary are giving Chen a fair shake.

"He hasn't been found guilty yet, but the media wants to tell their audience he is," said Connie Lin, a former TV journalist and now media expert at Hungkuang University in central Taiwan. "It's not healthy for Taiwan's democracy."

To be sure, Chen is deeply unpopular. He's been abandoned even by many of his former supporters. For them, his public admissions are damning enough. Chen has said his wife, Wu Shu-chen, wired some $20 million to the family's overseas accounts, and he apologized for not reporting the money.

But Chen insists the amount was leftover campaign contributions, which he's allowed to keep under Taiwanese law.

Many Taiwanese simply don't buy that. Neither do prosecutors. They charged him and family members with embezzling state funds, accepting bribes and laundering ill-gotten millions abroad.

Chen pleaded not guilty in a pre-trial hearing on Jan. 19, and remains in detention. The next court date is Feb. 24.

Meanwhile, Wu, also a suspect, has failed to show up for 17 court appearances, claiming poor health. That excuse doesn't sit well with most Taiwanese. This week her own lawyer quit, a week before she's due in court again.

The scandal has sucked in Chen's children. His son, Chen Chih-chung, recently admitted wrongdoing in connection with sending funds abroad, and has turned state's witness against his own parents.

Chen's daughter, Chen Hsin-yu, has not been charged. But the media has mercilessly badgered her nonetheless. She's become something of a laughing-stock in Taiwan for her screeching tantrums, directed at TV reporters who shadow her every move.

The latest outburst came Monday in New York City, which she's now visiting to take a dentistry test. After being followed by TV cameras to her hotel, restaurants and through Manhattan's streets, Chen Hsin-yu snapped — screaming at reporters in Chinese, as amused and puzzled New Yorkers looked on:

"The media feels they have the power to supervise the whole case, and make sure no one escapes," explained a friend who works in Taiwan's television media. "They think the whole family is guilty, so how can you let her leave the country? They think the audience has the right to know what she's doing in New York City."

Cynical TV commentators and legislators suspect Chen Hsin-yu may be in New York to deal with the family's accounts. And they complain that prosecutors aren't moving against the family quickly enough.

Meanwhile, some observers are questioning the judiciary's impartiality. In three open letters (read the latest one here), a group of foreign scholars criticized Chen's detention before being charged, the mid-case swapping of a judicial panel to one seen as less sympathetic to Chen, ongoing leaks about the case, and a skit — performed for a gathering of judicial officials — in which prosecutors publicly mocked Chen.

But Taiwan's government has defended the courts' integrity, saying such criticisms reflect a "misunderstanding" of Taiwan's judicial system.

In Sanchong City, a working-class Taipei suburb that's a stronghold of support for Chen's party, residents said the case was overblown.

Whiling away a sunny afternoon on a park bench, retirees Chou Tu-sheng, 75, and Li Wu-tsai, 85, said Chen's alleged corruption paled next to that of the Kuomintang autocrats who ruled Taiwan before him. "He took some money, but not nearly as much as the KMT," said Chou.

Wu Cheng-hsien, 42, came over with his two daughters, 12 and 4, after overhearing the conversation. Wu used to drive a delivery truck, but hasn't found work since last summer. He said Taiwan should focus on fixing the economy, not Chen's alleged misdeeds.

"Keeping all of that money was immoral," said Wu. "But why is the media attacking Chen every day? If he's proven guilty, then we should deal with that. But we have bigger problems. Some people now don't have enough to eat."


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