'The worst day of my life'"I remember these faces," said the Reverend James Sinnott, 73, pointing toward a group of elderly women seated together at the Korea Democracy Foundation office in downtown Seoul last week.
"I remember fighting in the streets," he said, his voice choking. "They inspired me to do more because they were so brave."
The faces belonged to the widows of the Peoples' Revolutionary Party, eight men who were executed on subversion charges on April 9, 1975. Father Sinnott, who had demonstrated with the wives of the accused, was expelled from the country later that month for his calls for justice.
Twenty-seven years after the hangings, the Presidential Truth Commission on Suspicious Deaths last month announced that the whole PRP affair had been fabricated by the then Korean Central Intelligence Agency. The commission discovered the fabrication in the process of investigating the death of Jang Seok-gu, who died in prison while serving a five-year sentence for hiding a member of the political group.
"I am now 73 years old," said Father Sinnott. "April 9, 1975 was the worst day of my life. I can never forget that day. Nor can they."
In April 1974, Father Sinnott was a parish priest in charge of eight small islands off the coast of Incheon, including Yeongjeongdo, where the Incheon International Airport now sits. A pre-med student while studying at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., the priest took as much delight in taking care of the sick as he did in the spiritual needs of his flock.
"I pictured myself as Albert Schweitzer in the Congo," Father Sinnott said. Ordained in 1960, he arrived in Korea the following year and worked in the Incheon diocese before being handed the eight islands as his parish in 1965.
Finding no medical facilities in his outpost, he immediately set about opening a clinic and installing a doctor. "Those were the most productive years of my 'normal' life," he said.
Korea in 1974 was a country where trouble was brewing, as then President Park Chung Hee, who had come to power through a military coup in 1961, sought to keep a tight lid on dissent. In December 1972, the Yushin Constitution cleared the way for President Park to extend his rule for another six years. But starting with a large demonstration at Seoul National University in October 1973, college students rose up against the new constitution.
Starting in January 1974, one emergency decree followed another. All the decrees banned any criticism of the new constitution. "The Emergency Decree No. 4 promulgated in April was the straw that broke the camel's back," Father Sinnott said. "If a student demonstrated he could be killed or put into prison for 15 years." Hundreds of student activists and dissidents were arrested.
That same month, Neil Doherty, a U.S. Embassy employee who dealt with prisoners of conscience in Korea, told Father Sinnott to "Watch for the orchestration." Father Sinnott said Mr. Doherty, a former Maryknoll seminarian, was an undercover agent for the U.S. CIA. "I think he needed to make some sort of confession."
In mid-May, an announcement was made of a communist plot, and Father Sinnott realized that this was the "orchestration" he had been warned to expect.
Feeling guilty that he had not done anything with his prior knowledge, his first act of defiance was ripping down the wanted posters of three young men labeled communists. "Nobody stopped me, although I was doing it in plain view," he said.
While most of the student activists rounded up in April were eventually released, eight members of the so-called People's Revolutionary Party were found guilty of masterminding a plot to overthrow the government, on instructions from the communist North, in a sham military court in August. They faced execution.
"I got to know the PRP wives in October and I helped interpret for them in meetings with the foreign press," Father Sinnott said. "I never led them in anything. I had decided that I would play a supporting role."
The women, none of them Roman Catholics, found in the Irish-American Catholic priest a reliable and steady support, someone filled with a sense of justice, someone who was quick to anger at injustice. "Father was very tall and did very well in skirmishes with the police," said Shin Dong-sui, 72, wife of Do Ye-jong, who was 51 at the time of his execution.
The eight women had first approached a couple of Korean priests, but the priests felt limited in what they could do.
"No Korean would take our case. Not Catholics, not Protestants," Ms. Shin said. No Korean newspaper would print their story either, only the foreign press. "We were bitter at the response we got from our countrymen. We didn't know that their hands were tied. I am very grateful to the foreigners who helped us. Without them, we could not have done anything."
Father Sinnott, in turn, was surprised by the women. "They were shoving and pushing the police. Not the submissive women they seemed at first," he said. From October 1974 to April 1975, Father Sinnott joined the eight women in the streets of Seoul as they demanded a fair and open trial.
"How could I say it was not part of my religious life to be out there on the street with them?" he asked. On the streets, he was given "special treatment" by the police, who did not want the added trouble of injuring an American citizen. "I was extra careful in crossing the street, but I was angry all the time and didn't have room to be afraid," he said.
The Supreme Court, on April 8, 1975, confirmed the death sentences for the eight men in a 10-minute session. "Not long after that the International Jurist Association called it 'A black day in the history of jurisprudence,'" Father Sinnott said.
An Amnesty International lawyer from Britain immediately began filing appeals. No one expected that all eight would be hanged in the dawn hours of April 9, less than 20 hours after their sentences' confirmation.
The women were told to gather at the Seodaemun Prison gate by 9 a.m. "They did not know their husbands, who they had not seen in a year save for that trial in August, had been hanged already," Father Sinnott said.
At 9:30, a family member of one of the women said that she had heard the news of the men's execution on the radio.
"Huh," Father Sinnott said with a deep sigh, tears welling up as he recalled that moment. "All you can do is cry. Cry together."
The cruelty did not end there. The bodies of two men were not given to their families, but were instead taken to a crematorium north of Seoul.
"Song Sang-jin's body was being taken to the church for a service when two busloads of riot police blocked the van," Father Sinnott said. In an attempt to prevent the police from taking away the coffin, the priest and others lay on the ground in front of the van.
"Eventually a tow truck came and just lifted and hauled it away," he said. "The body must have had extensive torture marks and the police wanted to hide it." In fact, the report by the presidential truth commission released last month cites testimony by several witnesses that torture did occur, confirming the father's suspicions.
A week later, Father Sinnott's visa renewal was denied and he took the very last plane out, on April 30, returning to the United States. "I spent the first year in Washington testifying before the Human Rights Committee and the Senate subcommittee on Human Rights," he said. Right up to the 1980s, he would not stop talking about the human rights violations in Korea.
From 1985 to 1986, Father Sinnott served as a parish priest in Chile, where he found the political situation similar to Korea during President Park's regime. "The women in Chile and Argentina brought about changes, taking to the streets with the pictures of their beloved ones, asking where they were," he said.
Father Sinnott returned to Korea in 1989, the first time he was allowed back since his expulsion. "We didn't get to say good-bye to him when he was expelled. The police prevented us from even going to Seoul," Ms. Shin said. In 1989, they held a 60th birthday party for Father Sinnott on Yeongjeongdo. In 1994, he made another trip to Korea.
His current trip, made at the invitation of the Korea Democracy Foundation for a gathering Oct. 16-24 of foreigners who supported Korea's democracy movement, is the happiest return trip so far.
"I was very happy to learn that the government had pronounced the affair a judicial murder," Father Sinnott said. He insists, however, that there is more that needs be done. "More must be said and done to repair the terrible damage, the crime that was done to these people."
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