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Court clears Ma of graft charges

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The Supreme Court yesterday cleared President-elect Ma Ying-jeou of corruption charges, delivering a final ruling in the high-profile case less than one month before his inauguration on May 20.

The island's highest court said Ma had neither collected illegal income nor tried to break the law.

The Supreme Court "overruled the appeal by prosecutors and upheld the verdict of the High Court which found Ma Ying-jeou not guilty of corruption and breach of trust," court spokesman Chang Chun-tsung told a news conference.

The Supreme Court also rejected the appeal by Ma's former aide Yu Wen, who was sentenced to one year in prison by the High Court after he admitted flawed expense accounting at Taipei City Hall, Chang, the spokesman said.

Prosecutors had accused Ma of misusing NT$11.18 million in expense accounts while he was Taipei mayor from 1998 to 2006. He was charged with diverting the money from a discretionary fund into his personal account every month over about five years.

The initial charges in February prompted Ma to resign as chairman of the main opposition Kuomintang, but he denied any wrongdoing and was nominated as the KMT's presidential candidate. Ma has always insisted he acted just like 6,500 other government officials entitled to special expenses, describing the case as a dirty tactic by the DPP to crush his presidential bid.

A district court cleared Ma in August 2007, and the High Court also acquitted him last December on the grounds that it was common practice for officials to use their discretionary funds without providing detailed accounting.

However, prosecutors appealed that the Supreme Court overturn the ruling.

Ma won a landslide victory in the March 22 presidential vote over Frank Hsieh of the pro-independence DPP.

He is due to be inaugurated on May 20, succeeding the DPP's Chen Shui-bian who is stepping down after the maximum two four-year terms.

"We welcome and respect the Supreme Court ruling," Ma's lawyer Song Yao-ming said.

The DPP, in contrast, expressed regret. "We regret the verdict but we are not surprised as Ma is now elected," DPP Parliamentary Whip William Lai told reporters.

"Although Ma escaped prosecution, it does not mean he is innocent," Lai continued.

The corruption allegations stemmed from a decades-old system of allotting special funds to higher ranking government officials. Analysts say the rules governing the funds are vague and full of loopholes.

Lin Feng-cheng, executive director of Judicial Reform Foundation, said the verdict would serve as a precedent for other cases.

"It is the first and most important ruling on such special expense cases involving government officials, and it will become a major reference for the courts to rule on other cases," he said.

The High Court, in delivering its own not-guilty verdict on Ma in December, ruled that the funds "be considered as subsidies to officials, and that Ma was found to have complied with all the rules and committed no crime in handling the funds."

Outgoing Vice President Annette Lu and two other leading DPP members — Yu Shyi-kun, a former party chairman and ex-premier, and former foreign minister Chen Tan-sun — are on trial for corruption and forgery in other cases involving special expense accounts.

Hsieh, the DPP's defeated presidential candidate, and his running mate Su Tseng-chang were cleared by prosecutors last year of mishandling expenses.

Also yesterday, Vice Minister of Justice Chu Nan said that it remains to be discussed whether the special allowance funds can be regarded as a substantial subsidy to ranking officials.

Prosecutor General Chen Tsong-ming also called for the Legislative Yuan to clearly define the nature of the special allowance funds, in order for prosecutors to follow when handling similar cases in the future.

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