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South Korea: New blow for right to peaceful protest as appeal court upholds conviction of trade union leader

    December 12, 2016

    Today’s appeal court ruling reducing the prison sentence of trade union leader Han Sang-gyun cannot mask the authorities’ intolerance of the right to peaceful assembly in South Korea, Amnesty International said.

    The judges reduced Han Sang-gyun’s jail sentence to three years for public order offences and violations of the problematic Assembly and Demonstration Act, during a series of demonstrations in 2014 and 2015. Han was also held responsible for sporadic clashes with police at a series of anti-government protests he helped organize.

    “Han Sang-gyun should not be held criminally responsible for violent acts taken by a small number of individuals, simply because he was one of the organizers of protests that were largely peaceful,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s East Asia Research Director. 

    “His prosecution and upheld conviction underlines the authorities’ intolerance of the right to peaceful assembly.”

    Han, who is president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, was originally handed a five-year prison sentence at his initial trial in July.

    The prosecution cited Han’s role in organizing the anti-government ‘People’s Rally’ in November 2015, which saw police clash with protestors. Police used excessive force during this largely peaceful protest, including water cannons. The police action caused injuries among demonstrators, including to farmer Baek Nam-gi, who eventually died after he sustained injuries when struck at close range by a police water cannon.

    More than one year later, the authorities have still not completed a thorough and public investigation into Baek Nam-gi’s death, and no commanding officer has been held accountable.

    In the same period, prosecutors have processed more than 100 cases against participants in the ‘People’s Rally’, and the courts have handed down more than a dozen prison sentences. Han Sang-gyun and five other members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions remain in jail.

    “The speed with which Han Sang-gyun’s case was processed is in stark contrast to that of the slow-moving investigation into the use of force that led to Baek Nam-gi’s injuries, and eventual death. This calls into question the commitment of the government to secure justice for Baek Nam-gi and his family,” said Roseann Rife.  

    Han Sang-gyun is among a list of people, including human rights activist Park Rae-goon, and former National Assembly member Lee Seok-kee, who have been unjustly charged and sentenced to prison terms for the legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of expression or peaceful assembly.

    The appeal hearing took place against a backdrop of large-scale peaceful protests against the embattled South Korean President Park Geun-hye across the country in recent weeks. The participants came from a broad spectrum of civil society raising a multitude of issues including human rights concerns.

    “The authorities need to show that the recent restraint shown in the policing of protests is more than an opportunistic political tactic. One clear signal would be to end the unjust prosecutions against organizers of demonstrations,” said Roseann Rife. 

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