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August 21, 2017

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It's time to really care more about farmers

President Chen Shui-bian announced on Tuesday his decision to grant a pardon to Yang Ju-men, a convict who is serving a prison term for placing explosive devices in public places. The President's decision has triggered widespread controversy.

Chen said Yang only intended to safeguard the interests of local farmers, and that his moves can be forgiven. He added that Yang has behaved well in jail, and there are no fears that he would repeat such a mistake again.

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and especially President Chen himself, is known for devising clever campaign gimmicks. The decision to set Yang free before completing his prison term is considered a tactic of this kind.

Who can honestly say this is not true, given the timing of the pardon and the fact Yang could regain freedom in September or October without the pardon?

Yang was sentenced in 2005 to seven and a half years in prison for planting 17 explosive devices in public places to protest rice imports that were mandated by agreements with the World Trade Organization. The explosives had notes that read, "Opposing rice imports."

Six of the devices went off, but nobody was hurt. Police investigating the case said Yang had received training in producing bombs and that he deliberately designed his contrivances so that they wouldn't result in fatalities.

However, the event did arouse fears and concern, and according to news reports, the police, who were given a deadline to solve the crime, had to delay their work on many other cases.

And yet many labor rights activists voiced their support for Yang, asserting that his actions had underscored the government's and society's neglect of the island's farming and agricultural workers.

When the case was tried in the Taipei District Court, Yang was given seven years and six months, plus a fine of NT$100,000. On appeal, the Taiwan High Court reduced the jail term to five years and 10 months plus a fine of NT$100,000 in 2006.

Despite the illegal nature of his actions, Yang was credited by some for helping Taiwan negotiators resist pressure from the U.S. to lower the import tariff rate. The series of bombings set off by Yang was also thought to be one of the major reasons the U.S. considered Taiwan farmers' plight, and thus gave up a plan to file a World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint against Taiwan's refusal to open further to imports.

Here we wish to repeat some of the views we expressed after Yang's arrest in 2005. His criminal acts may be forgivable considering that he was sympathetic toward the island's farming population. He was trying to help farmers, who mostly live a hard life because the island's agriculture has become stagnant. The island's farmers do deserve more protection from the government and more care from the rest of society.

However, given the fact that Yang's acts of violence have had a negative impost on law and order, his conviction and sentencing were certainly justifiable.

Society has been divided with regard to President Chen's pardon decision. The spokesman for a pro-Yang advocacy group said the special pardon is "belated justice," whereas legal experts say it makes a mockery of Taiwan's judicial system.

When told about the imminent pardon and release, Yang only expressed the hope that the president will care more about farmers and about students, whose parents cannot afford their children's lunches at schools.

According to news reports, Yang's mother said when speaking about the President's decision to grant his son a pardon that "President Chen always goes back on his promises" and that "I'll believe it when I witness my son come back."

Yang's father was even more critical. "We all thought we would live better lives when Ah-bian (Chen's nickname) was elected," the senior Yang said. "Now our days are increasingly miserable."

"Stop tricking voters," he added.

Even within the ruling DPP, Chen's decision has also prompted some censure. Tsai Chi-fang, a prominent figure in the party, commented on the President's decision in a voice of disdain. The outspoken DPP legislator said commuting Yang's sentence could encourage people to break the law in the name of righting social injustices.

Due to his many ill-considered remarks, Tsai is a controversial politician himself. This time, however, he may have said the right thing. On the other hand, Ah-bian's real intentions in granting Yang a pardon must be viewed in perspective. Several major elections are looming, and it is hard to disassociate what he said from the DPP's electoral campaigns.

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