Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS mourns the death of South Korean activist and farmer Mr. Nam-gi Baek on 25 September due to injuries he sustained while exercising his right to peaceful assembly. We urge South Korean authorities to conduct a swift and impartial investigation into Mr Baek’s death and the use of excessive force by police to disperse and intimidate protesters.
On 14 November 2015, in the capital, Seoul, Mr Baek was struck by a police-operated water cannon during a mass demonstration. As a direct result of the high-powered blast, Mr Baek suffered a brain haemorrhage and multiple fractures to the skull and eye socket. Mr Baek, who was 68 at the time of the incident, was in a coma for 317 days before succumbing to his injuries last week.
Directly following Mr Baek’s death, the police blocked all access roads to the hospital, barred people from entering the premises and attempted to seize his body. Despite Mr Baek family’s explicit objections, the authorities requested a warrant to conduct an autopsy. Civil society observers are deeply concerned that the result of the autopsy may attempt to distort strong evidence that Mr Baek died due to injuries incurred during the protest.
Mr Baek, who was a devout champion of South Korea’s underserved agricultural community, joined the 14 November 2015 protest to address the government’s reluctance to ensure adequate compensation for rice cultivation and production. The demonstration, which was attended by over 130,000 people, attracted a diverse constituency of union members, farmers, students and urban poor who came together to highlight grievances stemming from concerns about the government’s democratic backsliding. In response to the protests, the authorities deployed over 20,000 police officers who proceeded to use excessive and coercive tactics, including water cannons, pepper spray and arbitrary arrest, to disperse the protesters.
Following the demonstration, over 500 members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) were summoned by the police for their role in the November 2015 protests. To date, at least 20 KCTU members have been convicted and sentenced from 8-18 months in prison for protesting. In July 2016, the Central District Court in Seoul convicted Mr Han Sang-gyun, President of KTCU, to five years in prison for his legitimate activities in helping to organize the protests.
The police’s heavy-handed response to the November 2015 protests is worryingly emblematic of South Korean authorities’ growing intolerance of the right to protest. Since 2014, the authorities have adopted increasingly hostile approaches to mass demonstrations, including wholesale arrests of protesters, judicial harassment of civil society activists and wanton use of force. CIVICUS, has joined a number of international and national civil society groups, and independent UN experts, in condemning routine use excessive force and judicial persecution to silence peaceful protesters and human rights defenders.
CIVICUS urges the South Korean authorities to (i) investigate and hold accountable those responsible for Mr Baek’s death, (ii) issue orders to cease the use of excessive force and arbitrary arrest tactics to disperse peaceful protesters, and (iii) harmonise all relevant domestic policies and practices governing freedom of assembly with the UN recommendations on the proper management of assemblies.