[NOTEBOOK]Torture case calls for re-educationA murder suspect, Cho Cheon-hoon, who may have had connections to local gangsters, died suddenly during an investigation by the Seoul District Prosecutors Office on Oct. 27. The event has sent many Koreans into a panic.
The deceased appeared to have died of a beating, a Nov. 2 autopsy revealed. Worse, the prosecution admitted possible water torture on another suspect through an interim report on Nov. 8. The tragedy reminded many Koreans of a nightmare that happened 15 years ago.
Park Jong-chul, a Seoul National University student, was horribly tortured and later drowned by detectives who were trying to find out from him the whereabouts of his fellow demonstrators. Mr. Park was only 22 when he died.
"Mr. Park's case occurred under an authoritarian regime. It would never happen in the future," I wrote in my book, "Exclusive News That Swayed Korea." I expected that the savage interrogation practice of water torture would disappear with the demise of an authoritarian regime. The recent torture case, however, showed I was wide of mark.
The Prosecutors Office is supposed to investigate the truth and protect human rights. These two values should be compared to the wings of a bird. A bird's wings should always be balanced so that the bird won't fall from the sky. The two values occasionally collide. If prosecutors are focusing more on finding the truth than on the rights of suspects, those rights are more likely to be abused.
The prosecutors respond to this criticism by saying that they would not be able to solve any cases if they merely protected human rights every hour of the day.
In the United States, a suspect's rights, which are otherwise known as his Miranda Rights, were confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963. This law gave more weight to the protection of human rights by recognizing a suspect's right to remain silent.
This latest case in Korea originated from a desire to discover the truth. The real problem is, however, that forceful and coercive interrogations actually happen during democratic administrations.
"Detectives have to use coercive techniques on certain suspects," a former investigator at the Prosecutors Office said. "I would have been sentenced to life in prison if I had been caught using the coercive techniques I did."
The National Human Rights Commission analyzed 269 petitions for investigations at the Prosecutors Office from November 2001 through October. It turns out that forceful questioning by detectives accounted for 7.4 percent of all appeals. Civil organizations constantly receive requests for counsel on human rights abuse, which means brutal interrogations have not yet been abolished. Officials at the Prosecutors Office would not be doing their jobs if they did not know torture was still going on in interrogation rooms, and if they knew high-powered officials actually helped criminals.
Hong Gyeong-ryeong, a district attorney with links to the recent case, had no choice but to resign afterward. But inside the prosecution, it's been said that Mr. Hong is not the only one who should be blamed.
Investigators and prosecutors should be responsible for Mr. Cho's death. Crimes, nonetheless, are becoming more and more organized and intellectual. Television shows and movies that dramatize gangsters are deluding viewers, which is also dangerous. The heads of organized crime groups are versatile and operate legal businesses such as entertainment management firms. In this sense, investigations into drug trafficking and intellectual crimes will continue. Mr. Hong, received numerous floral bouquets at his office after his arrest. The response shows that people are supportive of prosecutors who go after criminals such as Mr. Cho.
Korean prosecutors should change their techniques. Closed-door, all-night questioning needs to be replaced. And more cooperation with lawyers is desperately needed. Courts should take drastic measures against forceful and coercive interrogations.
* The writer is crime and accident news editor of the Joongang Ilbo.
by Shin Sung-ho