Taiwan's former President Chen Shui-bian appeared in court Thursday on the first of several charges that could see him, if convicted, sentenced to life in jail, reports say.

He was brought into a packed Taipei court-room in handcuffs, becoming the island-nation's first former president ever to stand trial in a case that will center on allegations of bribery in a land deal, that he alleges is a witch-hunt driven by his opposition for unification with China.

The trial is just one of the several ahead as the combative 58-year-old is also accused of embezzlement of funds, money-laundering, influence-peddling and extortion. He is further accused of conducting transactions allegedly involving the siphoning off of USD 3.12m (TWD 104 million) from a special presidential fund and receiving bribes worth more than USD 9 million.

Chen has repeatedly refuted the allegations, insisting that he was being persecuted by his successor government which came to power last year, led by China-leaning President Ma Ying-jeou, who worked swiftly to enhance ties with Beijing.

China considers Taiwan to be a part of its territory that must eventually reunite itself with the mainland, and has threatened to invade if it ever formally declares independence.

The two sides had had virtually no direct links since the island split from China in 1949 after a civil war, and Ma's new policies mark a volte-face from Chen's pro-independence stance, which repeatedly irked Beijing.

The case against the immediate past president, full of political and family intrigue, has gripped Taiwan for months and has already seen his family members and several associates admit charges.

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