Taiwan ex-leader Chen Shui-bian freed from prison on parole

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Taiwan's ailing ex-president Chen Shui-bian was freed from prison on medical parole Monday after serving six years of a 20-year sentence for graft, as political leaders called for reconciliation on the deeply divided island. The 64-year-old, who led Taiwan from 2000 to 2008, waved to crowds of supporters as he left Taichung prison on Monday afternoon after being granted a month's parole due to ill-health. His freedom will be contingent on his medical condition, said deputy justice minister Chen Ming-tang, and he will be subject to monthly health check-ups. The former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader, who ended 50 years of Kuomintang party rule when he came to power, was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 for money-laundering and bribery during his term in office -- reduced to 20 years after appeals. Chen was transferred to a prison hospital in April last year after being diagnosed with severe depression, suspected Parkinson's disease and other conditions. He attempted suicide in June, trying to hang himself with a towel in a bathroom of the prison hospital. "The (independent) medical team think Chen needs to leave his present location where his medical treatment is not helpful to his condition," said deputy minister Chen after a parole board meeting Monday morning. "So a decision has now been made to parole him for a month." - Cheering crowds - Wearing a cap and trainers, Chen was brought to the jail entrance in a wheelchair on Monday afternoon before being helped to his feet by medical personnel and his son. He walked with a stick to a black sedan and waved to more than 200 cheering supporters at the prison gates before being driven to his home in the south of Taiwan. His release comes as political leaders from both the ruling Kuomintang and the main opposition DPP make moves towards reconciliation in the face of an increasingly frustrated electorate. Taiwan has long been split between supporters of the China-friendly Kuomintang and the DPP, which is traditionally sceptical of closer ties with Beijing. China claims sovereignty over Taiwan even though the island has ruled itself since their split in 1949 at the end of a civil war. Taiwan has never formally proclaimed independence. The Kuomintang suffered a dramatic defeat at local polls in November as fears grow over warming ties with China under current president Ma Ying-jeou. But there is widespread public dissatisfaction with the entire political spectrum, with the rival camps seen as failing to unite to tackle major issues including a stuttering economy. President Ma called for "cooperation" to deal with "domestic and external" challenges in his New Year address. DPP leaders have also acknowledged the gulf between the camps is not beneficial for Taiwan in the long-term. "While there may be no way to know the exact reason behind the decision to parole him, a number of political heavyweights from the Kuomintang have felt it is time to release Chen," said Lee Shiao-feng, a professor at National Taipei University of Education. "The move will help ease the tense mood that has divided the country and been overshadowing domestic politics for years." - Return home - Chen's son Chen Chih-chung told AFP he hoped to get his father home "as soon as possible for further medical treatment". His parole also required a Tw$2 million ($63,300) bail payment, he said. Some supporters outside the prison had been there since Friday. One held a placard which read: "God Bless Taiwan -- Go A-bian!" referring to Chen's nickname. The medical report on Chen was completed Friday but its delivery to the justice ministry was held up in traffic, leading some supporters to criticise the government for delaying his release. But deputy minister Chen said: "No politics was involved in this matter." Chen Shui-bian insists that the charges against him are part of a politically motivated vendetta by the current Kuomintang government, in retaliation for his eight years in power when he promoted the idea of Taiwan declaring independence from China. His supporters had recently stepped up their campaign for his early release, particularly after the Kuomintang's heavy election defeat. But deputy minister Chen said the parole release was "nothing to do with the result of the election".

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