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Amnesty chief urges Korea to abide by int'l standard in policing protests

All Headlines 17:13 November 24, 2009

By Kim Eun-jung and Lee Sung-yeon

SEOUL, Nov. 24 (Yonhap) -- The chief of Amnesty International Tuesday called on South Korea to launch an independent investigation into allegations of excessive use of force by the police during controversial anti-government protests.

"Our report last year on the Candlelight protests documented violence used by protesters but it also documented excessive use of force on the part of police officials," Secretary General Irene Kahn said during a news conference. "We believe it is the responsibility of the government to conduct investigations."

Kahn arrived in Seoul on Sunday and met with senior government officials and civil activists on her four-day visit to address human rights issues in South Korea.

The London-based non-governmental group sent an inspector in July last year to investigate allegations of excessive use of force by police cracking down on demonstrations against U.S. beef imports, a rare dispatch of a researcher to look into a particular issue.

Kahn said there are "worrying signs" about the current government's handling of demonstration and public protests, citing the anti-U.S. protests in summer in 2008 and Yongsan incident earlier this year. On the first day of her visit, she met with families of protesters killed in a clash with riot police in Seoul's redevelopment district Yongsan. Six people, including a police officer, were killed in a blaze that erupted during the pre-dawn raid.

"One issue that has become extremely controversial is the Yongsan incident. The families feel that their voices are not being heard and we call on the government to open a dialogue and negotiate a solution so that this issue can be closed in a fair manner," Kahn said.

As a strong opponent of the death penalty, Kahn urged the South Korean government not to resume the use of capital punishment, on which there has been a de facto moratorium for more than a decade. In February, she wrote a letter to President Lee Myung-bak to express her concern about lobbying by South Korean politicians to resume the use of the death penalty as part of their efforts to significantly toughen punishment for brutal crimes.

"Maintaining the death penalty doesn't deter crime," Kahn said. "We welcome the fact that South Korea has not executed anyone since December 1997 and call on the government to retain that position. Any retrogression on this issue would be extremely damaging for South Korea's reputation."

Since its foundation in 1948, South Korea has executed a total of 920 people, according to a ministry report. The last execution was carried out in December 1997 and there has been an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty since February 1998, when then President Kim Dae-jung -- who himself was sentenced to death in 1980, but was later pardoned -- took office.

A convicted serial murderer on death row committed suicide Sunday in his prison cell, apparently taking his own life out of anxiety over public opinion urging the enforcement of death sentences. The 40-year-old inmate left a memo saying the government has no intention of abolishing capital punishment.

"South Korea has made a long journey on human rights over the decades," Kahn said. "But there is still room for improvement."


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