Written by Chris Wang.

What was perceived as President Ma Ying-jeou’s well-crafted political conspiracy to remove Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) comrade, began to unfold and shock the Taiwanese people in early September.

The political drama, dubbed by the locals as “September Strife,” has become a national focus because the controversy appeared to have been more of a plot rather than an accidental finding as the Supreme Prosecutors Office’s Special Investigation Division (SID) described, despite both Ma and the SID claiming that Wang was implicated for his involvement in improper lobbying for a legal case, in which Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus convener Ker Chien-ming was accused of breach of trust in 1997.

The more shocking part of the story, however, was how wiretapping has been abused as a tool of criminal investigation — and a tool of political monitoring for personal gains, some said — which has reminded the people and politicians of Taiwan of the old days under the authoritarian KMT regime, when wiretapping had been the norm.

The ramifications were particularly embarrassing for Ma, who made a solemn pledge in his inauguration speech in May 2008 that there would be no more political monitoring and illegal wiretapping in Taiwan under his leadership.

Ironically, the dispute began with a wiretap on Ker, a senior lawmaker, when the SID bugged Ker’s mobile phone over his case and said the division surprisingly found out that Wang contacted former justice minister Tseng Yung-fu, who was forced to resign after the scandal broke out, and chief-prosecutor of the Taiwan High Prosecutors Office Lin Shou-huang by phone and asked the two to make arrangement so the responsible prosecutor would not appeal against Ker’s case.

Citing the SID’s finding, Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming held a press conference on Sept. 6, the day that Wang had left for Malaysia to attend his daughter’s wedding, to make public what Huang described as “the greatest scandal in Taiwan’s judicial history.”

Ma, who also serves as KMT Chairman, called a press conference at the Presidential Office on Sept. 9, and declared Wang as incompetent and unfit for the Speaker position, with Vice President Wu Den-yih and Premier Jiang Yi-huah also present at the event.

The proceeding of the event in the aftermath has opened up two “fronts of discussions.” First there was the political front, which focused on Ma’s intention to remove Wang and the reason behind it and the unconstitutionalism of Huang’s report to Ma on Aug. 31 when the investigation was ongoing, with potential Beijing interference also included in the discussion.

The second front focused on the SID’s investigation, in particular its wiretapping practice.

Under scrutiny by legislators in an interpellation session in the legislature on Sept. 25, the Prosecutor-General admitted that the SID had wiretapped the mobile phone of prosecutor Lin Shiou-tao, who was previously interrogated for her role in the improper lobbying case.

Three days later, Ker, who has never received any notification issued by the court about the surveillance following the conclusion of the wiretaps, a process which was required by law, and his fellow DPP lawmakers managed to obtain four of 30 wiretap tickets, found on Sept. 28 that the SID had wiretapped the Legislative Yuan’s switchboard — the legislature’s general line with the number of 0972630235 — for one month between May and June this year.

That means every inbound and outbound phone call made by lawmakers, congressional assistants and ordinary citizens had been on the SID’s records during that period. Some suspected that the division had monitored the switchboard for more than a month.

Other people unrelated to the case, among them Wu Chien-pao, former Tainan County Council speaker who was involved in a baseball game fixing scandal, were also wiretapped by the prosecutors, DPP lawmakers found.

The SID denied that the number was a LY general line in a press conference on the morning of Sept. 28, but Huang admitted the mistake and apologized in another press conference in the evening.

Surprised by the findings, the DPP, which described the wiretapping incident as a “Watergate scandal” in the first minute, now officially termed the incident the “Congressgate” in an international media conference on Sept. 30.

Justice Minister Lo Ying-shay then acknowledged to lawmakers that the switchboard of the legislature has been monitored at least 17 times since 2008.

That was not the end of the story, however, as the Chinese-language Next magazine published on Oct. 23 reported that during the SID’s wiretaps of the LY’s general line, phone conversations of at least 15 lawmakers, including several KMT lawmakers, among them Hsieh Kuo-liang, were monitored.

The magazine reported that the conversation between independent lawmaker Kao Chin Su-mei and current Interior Minister Lee Hong-yuan, who served as Taipei County deputy commissioner at the time and was reportedly in an extramarital affair with Kao Chin, was also caught on tape.

The snowballing controversy on the SID’s wiretaps has sparked public outrage against the division’s abuse of its investigation rights as it appeared that the prosecutors could monitor anyone, including the Speaker, lawmakers, fellow prosecutors and ordinary citizens, it wanted for whatever reason.

It seemed that the district courts, which are in charge of reviewing applications of the wiretap tickets, had almost never rejected any application submitted by the SID, since the division, which is tasked with probing Cabinet-level and beyond corruption cases, was supposed to be a “higher-ranking agency.”

The only good thing in the ongoing controversy was perhaps the KMT lawmakers’ agreement last week on the establishment of a document request task force under the legislature’s judiciary sub-committee because of the SID’s wiretaps on lawmakers of the ruling party.

The task force is trying to request the Prosecutor-General’s phone records to find out whether Huang had contacted the President before Aug. 31 and whether Ma had instructed Huang on the Wang case.

So far, Huang has refused the DPP’s demand for him to be suspended for further investigation and has said that he would not provide his phone records, which are private assets and should be protected by the Constitution.

Additionally, the opposition has cited previous examples of South Korea and the US and proposed to abolish the SID, saying that a system of special prosecutors is unnecessary.

This is still a developing case that worth people’s attention as the political showdown between Ma and Wang has not reached its final stage and someone — or the SID — would have to be held accountable for the rampant abuse of wiretaps eventually.

Chris Wang is politics correspondent for the Taipei Times. He writes here in a personal capacity. 

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