중앙데일리

Protesters to blame for fatal Yongsan fire: prosecutors

Families of deceased vow to fight after police are cleared

Feb 10,2009
State prosecutors yesterday indicted 20 protesters for causing last month’s deadly fire at a Yongsan construction site, while clearing police of any wrongdoing.

A group of evicted residents occupied the Namildang Building in Yongsan on Jan. 19 to fight a planned redevelopment project. When SWAT teams tried to remove them on Jan. 20, a fire broke out in the protesters’ rooftop watchtower, killing five demonstrators and a SWAT officer.

The dead protesters’ families and an alliance of liberal civic groups immediately condemned the indictments. In a press conference in front of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, Lee Hyeon-seon, whose father, Lee Sang-lim, died in the fire, criticized the probe as unfair.

“I think the prosecution and police sided with each other, while the poor people were linked to Jeoncheolyeon and crushed,” she said, calling for an investigation by an independent counsel.

Jeoncheolyeon, a radical nationwide group of evictees and squatters, is suspected of orchestrating the Yongsan protest. Prosecutors said they will continue to investigate the allegation and will try to arrest the group’s leader, Nam Gyeong-nam, as soon as possible.

The prosecution concluded yesterday that the deadly fire started after protesters used flammable material during the clash.

“After protesters poured paint thinner on the SWAT teams, who were trying to dismantle the watchtower, one of their fellows threw Molotov cocktails to deter [the officers],” the prosecution’s press release said. “That ignited the stairway around the third floor of the watchtower, and the fire spread to a large cache of paint thinner on the walls and stairways, causing a bigger fire.”

“All of the protesters hid their faces with masks, premeditated the throwing of Molotov cocktails and actually acted on the plan,” prosecutors said. “Although we cannot identify the actual thrower, the entire group must be held accountable as accomplices for the series of criminal activities.”

After the incident, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office set up a special investigation headquarters to look into the case. Seventeen prosecutors and 24 investigators questioned eyewitnesses, protesters, police officials and firefighters and examined evidence with the assistance of state forensic labs.

The prosecution said they questioned 27 arrested protesters, 75 SWAT officers who participated in the operation and seven police commanders. To guarantee transparency, lawyers were present when protesters were questioned and the interrogations were recorded on video, the prosecution said. Autopsies of the victims and the National Institute of Scientific Investigation’s reconstruction of the fire were taken into account.

The prosecution said the key was analyzing video recordings of the fire. “Not only the video recording from the police but also other Internet news media recordings were provided or seized, and we looked into 21 different records,” the prosecution said.

As a result, 20 protesters were indicted on charges of breaking into the building and shooting golf balls and marbles at nearby structures, roads and police. They were also charged with throwing Molotov cocktails and setting fire to nearby buildings. They were accused of obstructing justice and manslaughter by throwing flammable materials and using metal pipes to fight police.

The prosecution said 27 people linked to the incident were arrested. Of the 27, five who fought the police until the fire broke out were prosecuted with detention; 15 others were indicted without detention. The prosecution suspended the indictment of one protester who has no criminal record and is supporting a disabled child.

The investigation will continue against six other people, the prosecution said, noting that some are still hospitalized. One is Lee Chung-yeon, leader of the Yongsan evictees’ group.

Meanwhile, prosecutors cleared SWAT officers and their upper chain of command of any wrongdoing. Kim Seok-ki, the Seoul police chief slated to head the national police, also faced no charges, although the Blue House faces growing political pressure to fire him. Kim said last night that he would make public his position today at an 11 a.m. press conference.

The SWAT teams were dispatched only a day after occupation of the building began and some questioned the police operation’s legitimacy. The prosecution said yesterday that police had adequate grounds to launch the operation because protesters posed a threat to the public by throwing Molotov cocktails, bottles of acid and golf balls at adjacent buildings and roads.

Prosecutors’ experiments proved the protesters’ actions were dangerous, the press release said.

“Unless the police operation clearly lacked legitimacy, we cannot hold police legally accountable,” the prosecution’s press release said. “It is the police’s duty to protect public safety and properties, and police have the right to choose how they perform the duty.

“If the police had failed to dispatch SWAT teams in time and public damage grew, they would have faced criticism for being derelict in their duty to protect the people’s safety and properties,” the prosecution said.

Prosecutors also said police were not responsible for the fire. “Whether the fire and its deadly outcome fell within the scope of police control or not was key to determining police responsibility,” the prosecution said. “The fire and the deaths were triggered by the protesters’ independent actions, and the incident was outside the scope of police control.”

While the police were not directly responsible for the incident, prosecutors said police lacked preparation. “Whether the measures during the police operation were appropriate or not is separate from determining the legality of the actions and judgments,” prosecutors said. “As we see the end result, shortcomings existed in the operation’s preparation and implementation.”

Prosecutors also said they investigated an allegation raised by MBC’s “PD Diary” program that workers dispatched from a temporary agency to support the building’s demolition had illegally joined the police operation.

The prosecution said two construction company managers will be prosecuted for ordering workers to use fire hydrants as water cannons on Jan. 19 to remove protesters from the building. Five other workers were also indicted on charges of using violence to remove the protesters on Jan. 20.

The prosecution, however, said no workers joined the police operation and the three civilians captured in PD Diary’s video footage were identified as evictees, not construction workers.

The opposition Democratic Party said yesterday that it will push for the appointment of an independent counsel. “The prosecution’s announcement, in other words, is that the protesters killed themselves,” DP Chairman Chung Sye-kyun said.

The National Assembly has already scheduled a session to question the government about the Yongsan incident tomorrow, and the Democrats said they will challenge the prosecution’s investigation during the session.


By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]



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