South Korea: Arbitrary detention of Mr. Sang-gyun Han, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU)

Urgent Appeal

KOR 002 / 1215 / OBS 108
Arbitrary detention / Judicial harassment /
Obstacles to freedom of assembly
South Korea
December 16, 2015

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in South Korea.

Description of the situation:

The Observatory has been informed by reliable sources about the ongoing arbitrary detention of Mr. Sang-gyun Han, President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) [1] and the crackdown on hundreds of KCTU labour activists.

According to the information received, on December 10, 2015, Mr. Sang-gyun Han was arrested by the police at the Jogye Temple in Seoul, and was taken to the Namdaemun Police Station where he remains detained for questioning. Mr. Han is expected to be moved to a detention centre on December 17 where he will be kept in detention during the investigation and trial.

Mr. Han is accused of violating the Assembly and Demonstration Act and the General Obstruction of Traffic (Article 185 of the Criminal Code) in relation to his participation in protests that took place in April and May 2015 to commemorate the first anniversary of the sinking of the Sewol Ferry and to call for an independent and transparent investigation into the Sewol Ferry incident. After the protests in April and May, Mr. Han was summoned by the police for questioning, but he refused to appear for fear that he would be arbitrarily arrested.

On June 23, 2015, an arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Han, who subsequently went into hiding in the KCTU offices for about five months. He later sought refuge at the Jogye Buddhist Temple in Seoul city centre for almost one month, until he was finally arrested while leaving the temple after the police had surrounded it and attempted to forcibly enter the building.

The Observatory has also received information that Mr. Han has been on hunger strike since November 30, 2015, in protest against the illegitimate arrest warrant issued against him and the proposed labour reforms that would further limit workers’ rights. He has reportedly continued the hunger strike while in detention, and his health is deteriorating significantly. In addition, on December 16, 2015, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation for Asia and the Pacific (ITUC-AP) was denied the right to visit Mr. Han at the police station. Police stated that the visit was refused due to “worries about the possibility of conspiracy and destruction of evidence”.

Mr. Han faces eight types of charges related to the April and May demonstrations [2], and police are also considering charging him with “incitement of violence” in relation to his participation in a protest denouncing proposed labour law reforms that took place on November 14, 2015, along with other members of KCTU, farmers and civic groups. If convicted, Mr. Han could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to 15 million won (approximately 11,600 Euros). According to reports, the police are already investigating more than 790 KCTU officers and members in relation to the November 14 demonstration. 24 KCTU members, including Mr. Han, are already detained, and 73 others have been charged but are not yet in detention. The investigations are ongoing and KCTU representatives fear that more charges could be filed everyday.

In response to the crackdown on labour activists and attempts by the government to pass labour reforms that would further limit workers’ rights, KCTU organised strikes across the country on December 16, 2015. Although there were no reported clashes with the police during the strikes, the authorities declared the strike “illegal” and announced that they would take strict measures against the organisers and participants. The government has reacted similarly to strikes in the past, imposing criminal and civil charges against union leaders and strike participants, and KCTU officers fear that today’s strike will result in increased reprisals. Nevertheless, KCTU members are planning another strike during the week of December 21-25, 2015, unless the government puts an end to the repression of the labour movement in South Korea.

The Observatory condemns the ongoing repression, intimidation, and judicial harassment of labour leaders in South Korea, and in particular the arrest and arbitrary detention of Mr. Sang-gyun Han, which seem merely aimed at sanctioning the peaceful human rights activities of labour unions and workers’ rights organisations. The Observatory calls upon the South Korean authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Han and all other detained labour leaders and human rights defenders, and drop all charges against them.

The Observatory is concerned by the ongoing attempts by the South Korean authorities to curtail freedom of association, assembly, and expression, which seem to be aimed at undermining the legitimate activities of human rights defenders. The Observatory recalls that the South Korean authorities have the responsibility to ensure the protection of human rights in general and of rights related to freedoms of expression, assembly and association in particular.

Actions requested:

The Observatory urges the authorities of South Korea to:

i. Guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of Mr. Sang-gyun Han and all KCTU members, as well as all peaceful protesters and human rights defenders in South Korea;

ii. Immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Sang-gyun Han and all KCTU members, as well as all peaceful protesters and human rights defenders in South Korea;

iii. Put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against Mr. Sang-gyun Han and all KCTU members, as well as all peaceful protesters and human rights defenders in South Korea;

iv. Ensure in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in South Korea are able to carry out their legitimate activities including the organisation of strikes and peaceful assemblies without any hindrance or fear of reprisals;

v. Conform with the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted on December 9, 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly, in particular:

its Article 1, which states that “everyone has the right, individually or in association with others, to promote the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels” ;
its Article 5 (a) which states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others to meet or assemble peacefully” ; and
its Article 12 which states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.”

vi. Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by South Korea.


Mrs. Park Geun-hye, President of the Republic of Korea, 1 Cheongwadae-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul 110-820, Republic of Korea, Fax: +82 2770 1690
Mr. Hwang Kyo-ahn, Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea, 77-6 Sejongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea. Fax: + 82-2-720-35 71
Mr. Kim Hyun-Woong, Minister of Justice, Government Complex-Gwacheon, Jungang-dong1, Gwacheon-si, Kyunggi-do, Tel: 02-2110-3178, Fax: 02-503-7118
Mr. Yun Byung-se, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 60, Sajik-ro 8-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea (110-787) Tel: +82-2-2100-2114, Fax: +82-2-2100-7999
National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Gumsegi Building, No. 16, Ulgiro 1-ga, Jung-gu, 100-842 Seoul, Republic of Korea. Tel: +82 2 2125 97 00; Fax: +82-2-2125-9718. E-mail:
H.E. Choi Kyoung-lim, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, 1 Avenue de l’Ariana, Case Postale 42, 1211 Genève 20, Switzerland, Tel:(41-22) 748-0000, Fax: 748-0003. Email:
H.E. Chong-ghee Ahn, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Kingdom of Belgium, Chaussée de la Hulpe 173-175, 1170 Brussels(Watermael-Boitsfort), Belgium, Tel : + 32 (0)2 675 5777, Fax : + 32 (0)2 675 5221/(0)2 662 2305

Please also write to diplomatic representations of South Korea in your respective countries.

Paris-Geneva, December 16, 2015

Kindly inform us of any action undertaken quoting the code of this appeal in your reply.

The Observatory, an FIDH and OMCT venture, is dedicated to the protection of Human Rights Defenders and aims to offer them concrete support in their time of need.

To contact the Observatory, call the emergency line:
Tel and fax FIDH + 33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18 / +33 1 43 55 18 80
Tel and fax OMCT + 41 (0) 22 809 49 39 / + 41 22 809 49 29
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