TAIPEI (Reuters) - Former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian was arrested on Wednesday on corruption allegations he brands as persecution by political rivals who have swung the island’s approach to China from antagonism to engagement.
Chen’s arrest could stoke political tensions in Taiwan, a vigorous democracy where Chen’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was ousted in legislative and presidential elections earlier this year.
Chen, who riled Beijing with his pro-independence posturing for eight years until his presidency ended in May, was detained on Tuesday in the full glare of the island’s boisterous media.
Photos of the 57-year-old former president, his hands raised in the air to show off a pair of handcuffs as he left the prosecutor’s office, filled the front pages of newspapers.
“The court, after questioning the suspect, believes the suspected crimes to be severe,” the Taipei District Court said.
“And there are enough facts to believe there was buried evidence, fabrication, altered evidence and conspiracy among suspects or witnesses,” it said in a statement.
The prosecutor’s office said Chen could be held indefinitely before charges are filed, but there was no intention to delay.
“There’s no time limit, but we’ll be quick,” said the prosecutor’s spokesman, Chen Yun-nan. “We won’t take too long.”
The prosecutor’s office listed five possible charges: graft, seizure of public assets, taking advantage of office to illegally obtain public assets, taking bribes and forgery.
It said that a guilty verdict for the first, second and third charges would carry a minimum prison sentence of five years on each count.
Members of Chen’s family and former aides are also being probed.
Chen denies any wrong-doing and has sought to cast himself as a victim of score-settling by the Nationalist Party (KMT).
“He’s spoken his viewpoint that this is political persecution and a political plot to get him,” his lawyer, Cheng Wen-lung, told reporters after the arrest.
The KMT, under President Ma Ying-jeou, launched a drive after Chen’s exit to improve relations with Beijing.
China has claimed Taiwan as its territory since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and has pledged to bring the island under its rule, by force if necessary.
China’s top negotiator on Taiwan affairs last week made the highest-level visit to the island by a Communist leader for nearly 60 years, agreeing to new trade and transit links that could soften the pain of Taiwan’s current economic slowdown.
However, thousands of anti-China demonstrators dogged the negotiator almost every step of his visit, underlining the obstacles that remain in the way of further rapprochement.
Chen’s detention was widely reported in China’s media on Wednesday, although reports appeared to avoid overt editorial comment and stuck mostly to the facts of the case.
At the regular news conference of China’s State Council Taiwan Affairs Office on Wednesday, spokeswoman Fan Liqing called Chen’s comments that his arrest was the joint work of the Nationalists and China’s Communist party “pure fabrication.”
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in BEIJING; Editing by Jeremy Laurence