[GLOBAL EYE]'Their trial' versus 'our outrage'

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[GLOBAL EYE]'Their trial' versus 'our outrage'

In the middle of the social outcry over the death by torture of a criminal suspect during interrogation by the prosecution, an American expatriate living in Seoul wrote a letter to the JoongAng Daily entitled "The truth about the Status of Forces Agreement." Then there was the incident of a Nepalese worker wrongfully held in a mental hospital for seven years. The tarnish was beginning to show on the image of Korea's human-rights regime.

The American reader's comment said, "Koreans claim that the SOFA violates their government's rights and infringes on Korea's sovereign rights. In principle that sounds fine, but in reality one needs only to read the headlines to see the truth...Before staging demonstrations pressing for a revision of the SOFA, Koreans should think about why the U.S. military mistrusts the Korean penal system." How frightening it was to realize that the clamor surrounding this issue of revising the SOFA was underpinned by such mutual distrust.

The death of two school girls by an American military armored vehicle was truly a horrific event. Considering the Korean legal sentiment of inflicting harsh punishment on convicted criminals, the recent uproar is understandable. The not-guilty verdict by an American military court that said in effect that the jury saw only a victim but no perpetrator is a tough pill to swallow.

But we cannot just brand the verdict a judicial farce and demand that it be overturned. It is difficult to accept, but we have to respect American judicial procedures and verdicts as long as the United States has jurisdiction.

The American jury system is often criticized for being a "trial of ignorance" and being excessively lenient toward suspected criminals. Because it applies a "communal conscience" by selecting a panel of jurors from among the peers of the accused, it is common to see outcomes based on sentiment and compassion rather than statutes or the facts of the cases. Seeking public justice through the conscience of laymen has been the focus of extended argument because it can be seen as both the best and the worst of democracy. The not-guilty verdict in the trial of O.J. Simpson, accused of murdering his wife and her friend, and the death sentence issued to Socrates by a jury in ancient Athens were some of the worst rulings in the history of jury trials.

In the United States, the question of intent is a central factor in deciding criminal liability in a traffic accident. In summary, the verdict at the U.S. court-martial said that the driver and commander of the armored vehicle had no intent to cause an accident or kill the girls. A communications problem prevented the driver, who had only a limited view of the road, from hearing the warnings of the commander of the vehicle that there were people in the roadway. There are some doubts about whether the communications equipment was maintained well enough to ensure that it was operating reliably. A few years ago, outrage burst out across Italy when the pilots of a U.S. fighter jet were acquitted by an American military court for killing many civilians after maneuvering at too low an altitude and hitting a ski resort gondola.

There is a natural sense of indignation that Koreans are not masters in their own sovereign state and cannot exercise criminal jurisdiction, but that logic has some flaws. The United States stations troops in 53 countries, but there has never been an instance where it has relinquished jurisdiction over a soldier charged with a crime in the course of his duty. The Korean military also exercises jurisdiction over incidents caused by its soldiers serving overseas. The rape of a Japanese woman by a U.S. soldier in Okinawa was not committed while the soldier was on duty.

Emotions complicate the matter. The realistic and plausible resolution would be to eliminate SOFA provisions that unfairly violate Korea's sovereignty and adopt measures to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring. But we must first end the festering sores of hate and distrust that stem from defining the issue as "their trial" pitted against "our rage."

* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Byun Sang-keun

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