Taiwan has sent a 10-member delegation to Beijing to discuss the fate of 45 Taiwanese suspects currently being detained under suspicion of involvement in a telecoms fraud ring. The Taiwanese residents were part of a larger group of 117 deported to mainland China from Kenya earlier this month.
After the deportations, Taiwan immediately accused China of carrying out an “illegal abduction” of Taiwanese citizens. A vague response from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – which affirmed the “One China” policy – added to concerns that the deportations were intended primarily to assert Beijing’s authority over Taiwanese citizens. That served to conflate a criminal case with deep-seated unease about international respect for Taiwan’s sovereignty in the face of Chinese pressure.
Beijing, for its part, argues that it has every right to press charges against the suspects because their victims were mainly mainland Chinese. China began a crackdown on cross-border telecoms fraud in October 2015; as of January 2016 it had “cracked 16,708 telecom fraud cases, apprehended 5,825 suspects and destroyed 927 gangs,” according to People’s Daily. That includes mass deportations of suspects from Laos (470 suspects sent to China in January 2016) and Indonesia and Cambodia (254 suspects deported to China in November 2015).
The catch is that, according to Chinese authorities, many of these international gangs included both Chinese and Taiwanese suspects. The investigation in Kenya snared residents of both sides of the Taiwan Straits – and thereby sparked a diplomatic incident.
A similar situation nearly unfolded in Malaysia, where 52 Taiwanese suspects were detained on suspicion of telecoms fraud. Beijing reportedly also pressured Malaysia to deport the suspects to the mainland, but Kuala Lumpur sent 20 of them to Taiwan instead. The other 32 are reportedly due to be sent back to Taiwan as well.
Taiwanese authorities released the first 20 suspects once they arrived from Malaysia, saying there was not enough evidence to charge them. Beijing responded angrily, with a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office saying that Taiwan had “disregarded many victims’ interests and harmed them a second time.”
To advance its case, China has unveiled a media blitz on the alleged crimes of the suspects, detailing the plight of the victims and the damage done. As has become standard practice for politically sensitive cases, Chinese state television even aired confessions from two of the Taiwanese suspects. That, however, only stoked fears in Taiwan that its citizens will not receive anything close to due process.
Against this stormy backdrop, Chen Wen-chi, director of the Department of International and Cross-Strait Legal Affairs under the Ministry of Justice, arrived in Beijing on Wednesday morning. Chen, the leader of Taiwan’s delegation, said she hoped to negotiate a joint investigation into the alleged crimes of the 45 Taiwanese suspects. Chen added that she wanted to ensure the suspects were being granted their legal rights; as of Wednesday evening, however, Taiwan’s delegation had not been granted permission to visit the suspects, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
Ultimately, Chen’s goal is to have the suspects brought back to Taiwan for trial. However, Taiwan’s premier, Simon Chang, warned on Wednesday that would be difficult. “We cannot be optimistic” that the suspects will be returned to Taiwan in the near future, he said.
Any arrangement worked out while Chen’s delegation is in Beijing will take place under the framework of the 2009 Cross-Strait Joint Crime-Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement. That agreement allows (among other things) for cross-strait cooperation on criminal investigations and the repatriation of convicted criminals. It notes, however, that repatriation requests can be delayed “until after the conclusion of judicial proceedings” against suspects.
Chiu Tai-san, who is set to serve as minister of justice when the new Democratic Progressive Party administrationt is inaugurated on May 20, has suggested that the two sides reach an agreement on how to deal specifically with cross-border fraud cases, where suspects and victims alike can be Taiwanese, Chinese, or both. “With the existing agreement in place aimed at bolstering joint crime-fighting efforts between Taiwan and China, the two sides should examine issues such as by what means and by whom different types of fraud cases should be dealt with,” CNA explained.