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(2nd LD) Prosecutors seek 18-month prison term for ex-President Chun in libel trial

All News 19:13 October 05, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS details, comments in last 6 paras; UPDATES with minor edits)

GWANGJU, Oct. 5 (Yonhap) -- The prosecution on Monday sought an 18-month prison term for former President Chun Doo-hwan on charges of defaming an activist priest who documented a bloody crackdown by Chun's troops on pro-democracy demonstrators in Gwangju.

On May 18, 1980, citizens in Gwangju, about 330 kilometers south of Seoul, rose up against the military junta led by Chun. His troops ruthlessly cracked down on the nine-day uprising, leaving more than 200 people dead and 1,800 others wounded, according to official data.

The 89-year-old, who led an authoritarian government from 1980-1988, was indicted in May 2018 for allegedly making slanderous statements toward the late activist priest Cho Pius' eyewitness accounts of the brutal crackdown in his controversial memoir.

The undated file photo shows former President Chun Doo-hwan. (Yonhap)

In the memoir published in early 2017, Chun refuted earlier claims made by Cho, who had testified to witnessing the military shooting at citizens from helicopters during the Gwangju uprising. Chun has insisted that Cho lied, calling him "Satan wearing a mask."

In the last court arguments at the Gwangju District Court on Monday, which Chun did not attend, citing poor health, the prosecution asked for an 18-month prison term for Chun for defaming the late priest.

"Scoffing at people who remember the pain of history should not be justified as freedom of expression ... Giving the defendant a jail term would serve as a stepping stone for our society to gain power to not repeat unjust history," the prosecution said.

In a meeting with reporters before attending the final court hearing, Father Cho Young-dae, the plaintiff and also a nephew of the late priest, said the testimony by the late priest made it possible for the country to "take a big step toward the truth" about the May 18 democratic uprising.

Priest Cho Young-dae, the plaintiff, speaks to the press in front of the Gwangju District Court in the southwestern city of Gwangju on Oct. 5, 2020. (Yonhap)

On the other side, Jung Ju-gyo, a lawyer for Chun, told reporters that he was confident that the former president will be cleared of the charges "based on evidence that has been garnered so far."

"On the question of whether there were shootings from helicopters, there is only one truth," he said. "I have been working on the trial with my eyes set on finding the truth," he said.

During the final presentation at the court, Jung said, "There was not a single shot fired from the skies of Gwangju. That is the truth," he argued, adding that there was no evidence to support the prosecution's claim that citizens were being shot from helicopters.

Since his indictment in May 2018, Chun has rejected court summons several times, citing health reasons, which include a claim that he suffers from Alzheimer's disease. He appeared in court most recently in April.

Jung Ju-gyo, a lawyer for former President Chun Doo-hwan, speaks to reporters in front of the Gwangju District Court in the southwestern city of Gwangju on Oct. 5, 2020. (Yonhap)

The disgraced ex-leader stood in a separate criminal trial on treason and other charges in 1996. The former Army general, who seized power in a 1979 coup, received the death penalty, but the top court reduced the sentence to life imprisonment. He was released in December 1997 on a presidential pardon.

The court will hand down the sentence on Nov. 30.

The legal representative for Cho, along with the May 18 Memorial Foundation, welcomed the recommendation of the prison term for Chun, while calling it short for someone that they said should be incarcerated for longer.

Kim Jung-ho, the attorney for victims involved in the uprising, claimed the case isn't simply one of defamation between individuals.

"The key here is the distortion of historical facts, which are in the realm of public interest," Kim said. "With his irresponsible words and behavior, Chun has caused unnecessary social conflict."

The foundation, along with other interest groups representing victims of the Chun-led crackdown in 1980, issued a statement calling on the court to make the right decision.

"The court should set history straight by handing down a sentence on Chun, who has been distorting history with his lies," they said. "This trial is significant in that it is the formal recognition by our judicial branch of the helicopter shooting. The court must show that fabrication will no longer be tolerated."

This photo provided by the May 18 Memorial Foundation shows a military helicopter flying over Gwangju in May 1980. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)


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