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Taiwan ex-leader to stand trial in graft case

world Updated: Mar 24, 2009 10:36 IST

Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian goes on trial on Thursday on corruption charges that he insists are politically motivated -- but which could help put him behind bars for life.

The self-styled "son of Taiwan," who had frequently angered China with his pro-independence rhetoric during his two terms in power, will be the island's first ex-president to be detained and face trial.

It caps a tense political drama that has gripped Taiwan for months and has already seen his family and several associates admit charges.

Chen, 58, will be driven to a district court in the capital Taipei from a detention centre outside the city where he has been held since December.

Thursday's case centres on allegations of bribery concerning a land deal, but that is just part of a string of charges against him.

Chen is also accused of embezzlement, money laundering, influence peddling and extortion -- charges he has categorically denied and which form the basis of what threatens to be a series of trials.

He faces life in prison if convicted on all counts.

A total of 14 people have been charged in connection with the overall case, 11 of whom have admitted a variety of offences.

They include his wife, son and daughter-in-law, who have pleaded guilty to money laundering.

Chen insists he is innocent and has accused the current, Beijing-friendly government in Taipei of leading a witch-hunt against him.

"The judge asked me if I admitted (wrong-doing)... Now I tell you, I admit, I have advocated Taiwanese independence in my political career spanning more than 30 years," he said at a pre-trial hearing.

"If you want to lock me up till I die... if the court and the prosecution join hands to persecute me, I resign myself to this."

Taiwan has governed itself since splitting from China in 1949 at the end of a civil war, but Beijing still regards the island as part of its territory to be reunified, by force if necessary.

Chen, born into a poor farming family, rose to become mayor of Taipei and then, in 2000, Taiwan's youngest president and the first from the opposition, ending the Kuomintang's 51-year grip on power.

He left office last year after serving the maximum two four-year terms.

Thursday's trial will open with testimony from a businessman who allegedly gave Chen and his wife, Wu Shu-chen, 400 million Taiwan dollars (11.42 million US) to seal a lucrative land deal while Chen was president.

Chen has said that his wife accepted the money without his knowledge, but insisted it was a political donation, not a kickback.

He has also admitted that his wife wired 20 million US dollars abroad from campaign funds without his knowledge, but denied laundering money.

Some legal experts have expressed concern about the handling of the case, including the court's decision to detain Chen before his trial and to switch the presiding judge.

Last month, a court rejected his latest appeal against detention, arguing that he may collaborate with other defendants to destroy evidence against him if freed.

Dates for the other trials have not yet been set.