South Korea: Five year sentence against union leader a chilling blow to peaceful protest

The five year prison sentence handed down to a prominent union leader is the latest example of how the government is galvanising its attack on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in South Korea, Amnesty International said today.

Han Sang-gyun is the latest victim of South Korea’s increasingly ruthless crackdown on peaceful dissent. His conviction is both unjust and shameful.

Arnold Fang, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.

On Monday, the Central District Court in Seoul convicted Han Sang-gyun, the leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), for his role as an organizer of a number of demonstrations. The most prominent of which was the largely peaceful ‘People’s Rally’ on 14 November 2015.

“Han Sang-gyun is the latest victim of South Korea’s increasingly ruthless crackdown on peaceful dissent. His conviction is both unjust and shameful,” said Arnold Fang, East Asia Researcher of Amnesty International.

“This sentence has a chilling effect on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly by deterring other would-be organizers. Under no circumstances should organizers be heldresponsible for the acts of those that hijack a peaceful protest.”

In seeking an eight year prison sentence, the prosecution claimed that as a union leader, Han Sang-gyun’ actions should be viewed as “misdeeds” of KCTU and the wider labour movement rather than just personal acts.

Tens of thousands of protesters took part in the anti-government ‘People’s Rally’ last November, which saw police clash with protestors. Police used excessive force during the largely peaceful protest, including water cannons, which caused injuries among demonstrators. A small number of protesters were reportedly armed with metal pipes and sharp bamboo sticks.  

A peaceful assembly does not lose its peaceful character due to violence or unlawful behaviour by some individuals. If a minority of demonstrators act in a violent way, police must differentiate between them and those who are not while restoring public order

The police arrested Han Sang-gyun in December 2015, when he surrendered voluntarily after taking refuge in a temple in central Seoul for 25 days, following the People’s Rally. He was charged with offences ranging from injury to public officials to obstruction of traffic.

The arrest and detention of union leaders, members and other demonstrators was not limited to Han Sang-gyun. More than 500 KCTU members have been summoned by police for their participation in the rally, thirteen of whom have so far been convicted and sentenced to between eight to 18 months in prison for participating in the rally.

“All those detained solely for peacefully expressing their opinions must be immediately and unconditionally released. South Korea needs to stop persecuting people for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Arnold Fang.

In a report on South Korea following his visit to the country in January 2016, Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, stated that charging protestors with certain criminal offenses, such as the general obstruction of traffic, in effect criminalizes the right to peaceful assembly.