Farmer activist Nam-gi Baek dies from injuries due to police force. Seoul police continue to evade accountability

Press release

(Geneva, Paris, Brussels, 26 September 2016) Mr. Nam-gi Baek, the farmer activist who was left in a coma after being pummelled by water cannons at a demonstration in Seoul on 14 November 2015, succumbed to his injuries and died of kidney failure on Sunday, 25 September 2016. FIDH, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) express our condolences to Mr. Baek’s family, and condemn the authorities’ ongoing repression of free expression and refusal to ensure accountability for their use of undue force against peaceful activists.

According to the death certificate issued by the hospital, Mr. Baek’s death was caused by acute renal failure and subdural haemorrhaging. A statement released by the Association of Physicians for Humanism on 25 September 2016 confirmed that this haemorrhage was due to the injuries Mr. Baek sustained when police fired water cannons on him and other demonstrators. The police nevertheless demanded that an autopsy be carried out, notwithstanding opposition from Baek’s family. Starting at around 2:00pm local time on Sunday, police blocked the exits of the hospital where Mr. Baek had died in order to prevent his body from being taken to the funeral home. Just after midnight on Monday morning, the Seoul Prosecutor’s Office submitted a request for an autopsy and a request for the confiscation of Baek’s medical records to the Seoul Central District Court. The Court rejected the request for an autopsy as unnecessary and unjustifiable, but did authorise the confiscation of Mr. Baek’s medical records. The police then evacuated their posts at the Seoul National University Hospital, but not before raiding its medical records office to seize Mr. Baek’s records. Just before midnight Seoul time on Monday 26 September, the Prosecutor’s office re-applied for an autopsy warrant to the Seoul Central District Court.

Despite national outcry and international condemnation of the police’s use of undue force against demonstrators during the 14 November rally, law enforcement agencies refuse to apologise or to launch an official investigation into the injuries that resulted from the police intervention during the 14 November rally, including the injuries that left Mr. Baek in a coma for the last months of his life. Instead of investigating the alleged police brutality, the authorities launched an extensive inquiry into the participants and organisers of the rally, ultimately indicting 20 members and officers of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), including KCTU President Sang-gyun Han who is currently serving a 5-year prison term for having organised the rally [1]. Police officials have even stated that it would be “inappropriate” to issue an apology for every injury or death during a crackdown on demonstrations [2], and continue to harass activists and their families to ensure impunity for their use of undue force, as exemplified by their actions on Sunday and Monday regarding Mr. Baek’s case.

Our organisations strongly condemn the ongoing attempts by the authorities to evade accountability and justice for their brutal crackdown of peaceful demonstrators, and the repression of free expression and assembly that is now commonplace in South Korea. We call for a transparent and independent investigation into the events of 14 November 2015 and for a thorough review of police protocol regarding crowd control and freedom of assembly, notably regulations of the use of water cannon trucks.

Furthermore, we are deeply concerned by the significant obstacles to the exercise of freedom of association and assembly in South Korea under the current government. Prior to the rally on 14 November 2015, the National Police issued a prohibition against any planned assemblies or demonstrations, and mobilised the Seoul Metropolitan, Gyeonggi Provincial and Incheon Metropolitan Police agencies to be on highest alarm. Police then mobilised some 20,000 officers from 248 squadrons, and formed barricades on the streets with almost 700 buses armed with water cannons and capsicum spray liquid. The police took pre-emptive and aggressive measures against the demonstrators, firing the water cannons and tear gas directly at peaceful marchers, including Mr. Baek. This aggressive repression of the right to freedom of assembly constitutes a serious violation of human rights, as noted by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association, Maina Kiai, in his June 2016 report on the Republic of Korea. The UN Special Rapporteur denounced the excessive use of force by the police as a breach of international law, and specifically denounced the use of water cannons, citing the tragic injury of Mr. Baek as a ‘symbol’ of the shrinking space for civil society and peaceful activism in the country. We thus call on the government to respect its international obligations and allow the people of South Korea to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly, free association and free expression.

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