South Korea: New laws needed after police officers avoid jail over fatal use of water cannon

Three South Korean police officers were spared jail time despite being convicted on Tuesday of neglect of duty in connection with the death of Baek Nam-gi, a farmer who sustained fatal injuries after being hit by a water cannon during a protest in 2015. The sentences demonstrate the need to amend laws in order to better protect the public from reckless police actions that may take the lives of protesters, Amnesty International said.

Baek Nam-gi's tragic and completely avoidable death underscores why South Koreans deserve both laws and policing that fully safeguard their human right of peaceful assembly without subjecting them to unnecessary physical risks.
Arnold Fang, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International

"Baek Nam-gi's tragic and completely avoidable death underscores why South Koreans deserve both laws and policing that fully safeguard their human right of peaceful assembly without subjecting them to unnecessary physical risks," said Arnold Fang, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International

On Tuesday, Seoul District Court fined Shin Yoon-gyoon, former chief of Seoul's fourth riot battalion, 10,000,000 Korean Won (approx. US$9,300). Two officers who operated the water cannon truck, Choi and Han, were fined 7,000,000 Won (US$6,500) and handed eight-month suspended prison sentences.

The court acquitted Goo Eun-soo, the commanding officer overseeing the policing of the protests on 14 November 2015, of the charge of neglect of duty leading to death.

Baek Nam-gi was struck unconscious by a police water cannon during anti-government protests in Seoul on 14 November 2015. He fell into a coma and eventually died from his injuries in hospital on 25 September 2016, aged 68.

The way in which water cannons were being used when Baek Nam-gi was injured did not meet international law and standards for the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials and violated South Korean police guidelines for the operation of such equipment. The water cannon was operated at too close a distance and at too high a strength and was aimed in a manner that struck the head of Baek Nam-gi.

Video footage of the incident shows Baek Nam-gi knocked to the ground and lying unresponsive after the direct hit to his head. Police officers manning the cannon did not stop after he fell to the ground. Indeed, video footage shows police continuing to direct the water cannon at his limp body as other protesters attempted to drag him away.

The Korean National Police Agency has since made the decision to adopt measures to better guarantee the right of peaceful assembly, as recommended by the country's Police Reform Committee, but the proposed changes have yet to be put into legislation.

"Police officers must never again resort to excessive force in dealing with protesters. Laws and regulations related to the policing of demonstrations must be promptly amended to meet international law and standards as soon as possible,” said Arnold Fang.