TAIPEI (Reuters) - Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian was released from prison on Monday on a one-month parole for medical treatment, amid pressure from pro-independence opposition leaders newly emboldened by victory in local elections six weeks ago.
The temporary release comes less than half way through Chen's 17-year jail term for corruption and while the parole does not explicitly restrict him from political activities, authorities said he was to use it mainly for recuperation.
Chen's illness remains undiagnosed, but his supporters say it involves nerve degeneration and sleep apnea, and could be life threatening.
"His condition will be reviewed monthly and may be extended if his medical status does not improve," Ministry of Justice official Chen Ming Tang said while announcing the parole.
"The terms of his release do not limit his activities but it is to be used predominantly for medical recuperation."
He denied that the parole was politically motivated and said that there have been no discussions of a full pardon.
Chen broke the ruling Kuomintang or Nationalist Party political hold on Taiwan in 2000 when he won the presidency.
He was sentenced to prison after losing the presidency to Nationalist leader Ma Ying-jeou in 2008.
Chen's release comes after the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ramped up a campaign for his parole, including a hunger strike by the former vice-president, following a major victory in mayoral and regional elections in late November.
Chen's supporters on the fiercely democratic island maintain that he was framed by the Nationalists.
In a statement posted on its website, the DPP expressed support for the move but said that it should not be exploited for political gain.
"We've long exhorted the Ma government to allow Chen to seek proper medical attention," the statement read.
Local television showed throngs of supporters cheering for Chen outside the central Taiwan prison where he is serving his sentence and in front of his house in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung.
As president, Chen was accused of seeking independence from China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province that will eventually be reunited, by force if necessary.
Since the Nationalist takeover, Taiwan-China relations have warmed considerably, though the party's trouncing in the November elections was largely seen as a referendum on the Ma government's China-friendly policies.
(Reporting by Michael Gold; Editing by Michael Perry)