SOUTH KOREA: Government must stop excessive use of force on peaceful protesters

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) strongly condemns the excessive force used by the police on peaceful demonstrators holding a candle light protest against the Korean government’s agreement to import American beef between the night of May 31st and the morning of June 2nd. We have received reports that dozens of protesters were severely injured due to the illegal use of water cannon by the police and the subsequent attack with shields and batons. (Photo 1) Several hundreds were arrested. We are also gravely concerned that on May 31, the Government even dispatched the Korean National Police 868, a special police team whose mandate is handling terrorists, in order to disperse the peaceful protesters. (Photo 2).

Some serious cases reported from Seoul by the local civic groups and media are as follows:

1. Mr. HOOG Gi-don, aged 32, suffered a ruptured eardrum after being hit by the spray from a water cannot that was used at close-range on June 1st. He is awaiting an operation.  
2. Ms. Lee Na-rae, a 21-year-old student at the Seoul National University was kicked about her head and neck several times by the riot police on June 1st. She is suffering from concussion following the incident. 
3. Mr. Kim Yong-kwon, aged 36, had his eyesight damaged after a jet from a water cannon blasted his eyes at a range of only 3 to 4 meters at around 5:30am on June 1st. He was taken to a hospital in Sinchon and underwent emergency treatment. (Photo 3).
4. Mr. Yoon, a 35-year-old researcher had his nose broken after being struck by a police shield at around 1am on June 2nd. 
5. Mr. Park, aged 37, was kicked by the police on his chest, abdomen and head for about 2-3 minutes at around 4:30am on June 1st. A MRI test report shows that he has cerebral hemorrhage behind his ears.      
6. Mr. Kim, a university student was kicked by the riot police on his face. He required six stitches on his head. He is scheduled to undergo plastic surgery due to severe bone fractures on his face.

There are other reports that the riot police forces abused many protesters at the time of arrest. There is also a report that two lawyers who wore “human rights monitor” vests during the protest, were also arrested and beaten, even though they revealed their identity.

The violent acts of the police forces clearly violate the freedom of assembly of Korean citizens guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of Korea, which guarantees the freedom of assembly of its citizens. The Korean government also failed to fulfill its international obligation as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right of peaceful assembly.

The AHRC is gravely concerned by the irregularities committed by the police in these incidents. The police reportedly used water cannons at close range (less than five meters), sometimes although the Police Equipment Management Regulation strictly limits defines its use on protesters within 20 meters range and to maintain an angle of 15 degrees. The police also released fire extinguishers containing halon, which can cause dyspnea, on the faces of protesters at close range.

The AHRC is of opinion that the Government worsened the situation by using the Law on Assembly and Demonstration, which has been accused by rights groups to excessively limit the right of assembly. For example, the Government labeled the peaceful demonstrations as illegal and forcibly dispersed them because no demonstration is allowed after sunset under this Law.

The Korean government should realise that a violent crack-down on peaceful protesters can never be a solution for the current situation, but only outrage the protesters. The AHRC strongly urges the Korean government to stop using illegal and excessive force to repress peaceful protesters. We also demand that the Government should immediately conduct a full inquiry into the violent acts of the riot police forces and take necessary action against those responsible according to the law. The Korean government should also amend the Law on Assembly and Demonstration to meet international human rights standards and take considerable steps to fully protect and fulfill the right of peaceful assembly of its citizens.

The Korean government has a greater responsibility to protect human rights as an elected member of the U.N. Human Rights Council. If the Korean government continues to use violent acts to repress peaceful protesters, the AHRC together with other international actors and groups will have to seriously raise doubts on the Korean government’s commitment to human rights.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-155-2008
Countries : South Korea,