After serving about one-third of a 20-year sentence on corruption charges, Taiwan's ex-president, Chen Shui-bian, was granted medical parole Monday. The move was seen as a conciliatory gesture by the ruling Nationalist Party – weakened in recent elections – to political opponents who favor a more hard-line approach toward mainland China.
Chen, 64, who was a standard-bearer of the Democratic Progressive Party, was an outspoken advocate of keeping substantial distance from Communist authorities in Beijing during his presidency from 2000 to 2008. He was granted a medical parole of at least one month by the Justice Ministry's Agency of Corrections after a team of experts found that the prison system could not effectively treat his deteriorating neurological health.
During his parole, Chen is to live under surveillance with family members in the port city Kaohsiung or in a local hospital until his health improves, a lawyer said.
"His conditions are pretty serious," Chen's lawyer, Shih Yi-lin, said. "Considering that he's a former head of state, you don't even need to keep him in prison for six years and a month. He should have been released earlier."
Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the self-ruled island of Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and insists the two sides — separated by just 99 miles of sea — must eventually unify. Chen angered Beijing by refusing to recognize that "one China" policy, making most dialogue impossible.
Since 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party has eased ties with Beijing, leading to 21 trade, transit and investments agreements with China. But the Nationalists lost seven mayoral and county magistrate seats to the opposition in November local elections, seen by many as a referendum on the party's engagement policy with the mainland.
"I don't think [Ma Ying-jeou] gave a direct order saying Chen Shui-bian is OK to go," said Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. "But since Ma didn't stop that from going the other direction, you could say he didn't stand in the way."
Chen's release is likely to satisfy a faction of opposition party supporters who felt the 20-year term was excessive, though the ex-president is not expected to play a major role in the party while paroled.
Officials started looking into the former president's condition in early December to eliminate public debate about whether the incarceration was "humanitarian" or "fair," Deputy Justice Minister Chen Ming-tang said at a news conference Monday.
A court convicted Chen Shui-bian in 2009 of bribery, money laundering and other graft-related charges involving about $18 million, making him Taiwan's first ex-president to serve time for crimes committed in office. His wife and two other family members were also convicted.
The former president disputes all charges, calling them politically motivated.
The former president has "severe" depression, incontinence and stuttering, among other symptoms, his lawyer said. He also uses a wheelchair and a cane. He may stay in the hospital during part of his parole, he said.
Chen was scheduled to leave his prison cell in central Taiwan on Monday but must return to prison in as little as month if his health improves, the Agency of Corrections said. He was also ordered to pay a parole bond of about $62,600.