Former President Lee Teng-hui, a pivotal figure in Taiwan's modern history, was indicted on graft charges Thursday, becoming the second recent leader accused of corruption and raising opposition claims the government was subverting the island's still-evolving democracy.
Prosecutors insisted the indictment followed the law and that Lee diverted parts of a special presidential fund to use for a think tank to serve as his private office after he left political life.
"Lee Teng-hui pocketed $7.79 million for his own personal use through money-laundering," the prosecutors' office said in a statement. "In order to set up the Taiwan Research Institute, he consulted with his advisers and decided to get the money from a National Security Bureau project fund."
But some members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party said the indictment was an effort to intimidate them ahead of elections in January _ direct elections that Lee _ nicknamed Mr. Democracy _ helped to introduce when he led Taiwan between 1988 and 2000.
Like Lee, the DPP opposes efforts by President Ma Ying-jeou and his Nationalist government to move Taiwan closer to China, from which it split amid civil war in 1949.
Prosecutors began investigating after Lee stepped down in 2000, and three years later charged the National Security Bureau's chief accountant with corruption. Those charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
Lee spokesman Wang Yen-chun described Lee as "bewildered" by the indictment and said he "regretted the untrue accusation" against him. His attorney, Ku Li-hsiung, added that prosecutors "did not present any evidence that directly pointed at the former president," and chided them for failing to take into account Lee's assertion that the NSB rather than Lee was in charge of disbursing the think tank's funds.
Still vigorous at 88, Lee was Taiwan's president as a Nationalist and became the island's first directly elected leader in 1996. Those elections prompted China to launch a fusillade of missiles off the Taiwanese coast, triggering the dispatch of an American flotilla to the area and doing much to raise "Taiwan consciousness" among the island's people, many of whom had previously thought of themselves as Chinese.
"Many consider Lee to be the father of Taiwan's democracy," said political scientist Hsu Yung-ming of Taipei's Soochow University. "He is the person most responsible for introducing the notion of an independent Taiwan identity among the public."
The Nationalists expelled Lee from the party shortly after he left office, primarily for helping to found a pro-independence group, the Taiwan Solidarity Union. The TSU and DPP form the core of the pan-Green alliance, which strongly opposes Ma's efforts to tighten ties between Taiwan and China.
Under Ma, Taiwan has made a series of landmark trade deals with the mainland, helping to reduce tensions across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait to their lowest level in more than six decades.
Those efforts have won plaudits from China and the United States but are strongly opposed by Taiwan's pro-independence camp, which sees them as the first step in the island's eventual absorption by the mainland _ China's ultimate goal.
Former President Chen Shui-bian, who ended the Nationalists' 50-year monopoly on power when he succeeded Lee in 2000, is currently serving a 17-year jail term after being convicted on a wide range of corruption charges. He alleges the Nationalists are persecuting him for his anti-China line, which both Ma and the judiciary deny.
In lashing out at Lee's indictment, DPP lawmakers pointed to alleged Nationalist maneuverings ahead of the presidential elections, which will pit Ma against DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen, a 54-year-old female intellectual whose political career began under Lee's tutelage.
"This is political persecution by the Nationalist Party as part of its campaign strategy," said Tsai Huang-lang. Added Gao Jyh-Peng: "The Nationalist Party persecuted President Chen Shui-bian and now they are targeting President Lee Teng-hui. This only goes to show that the judiciary is owned by the Nationalists."
Political scientist Chao Yung-mau of National Taiwan University said Lee's indictment reflects Taiwan's growing judicial independence, rather than any behind-the-scenes manipulations orchestrated by the Nationalists.
"This shows that Taiwan's judiciary can now investigate and prosecute former leaders without political interference," he said.