[INSIGHT]Legislative immunity should goThe prosecution’s petition for a detention warrant against the Millennium Democratic Party chairman, Chyung Dai-chul, has set me pondering about the legislative immunity of National Assembly members. Under the constitution, because the Assembly is now in the middle of a special session, the prosecution would need the Assembly’s consent to detain Mr. Chyung.
That the prosecution will get this consent seem very unlikely; neither the government party nor the opposition Grand National Party appear willing to cooperate. Even the requests for the detention of two other legislators, Park Joo-sun and Park Myung-hwan, which were received by the Assembly in June, are still pending. A special session in August follows the close of this session in July, and the regular session starts in September, so Mr. Chyung seems safe from detention until the end of this year. So do the other two lawmakers. The prosecution believes that Mr. Chyung must be detained because he might use his position to influence witnesses into changing their testimony and destroying evidence.
Had Mr. Chyung not been a member of the National Assembly with privileges, he would have been detained long ago and we would have seen some progress in this bribery case involving the Goodmorning City Corp.
In view of what’s really happening, is it a good thing to give legislators this immunity? This grant was originally made to protect legislators and ensure the freedom of the National Assembly from executive power. This system was not meant to shelter legislators from the consequences of crimes they committed nor to exempt them from legal responsibility. But looking at several recent cases, it seems that the immunity has transmuted into a protective wall behind which law-breaking legislators can hide.
Under the military governments in the past, the system of legislative immunity was indispensable to protect the National Assembly and the legislators. Now, things have changed. The executive branch does not unjustly oppress the Assembly or its members. There is, of course, still talk about targeted investigation and political conspiracies. But the prosecution is not like the prosecution of the old days and our society has reached the stage where political oppression is nearly impossible. If legislative immunity is to be used as a method of self-defense by the legislators against executive power, it has lost its original significance. We seem to witness these privileges being used too frequently to protect a legislator’s crime or to delay investigations.
There are currently 24 legislators who have been ordered to appear at the prosecution or in court, but there is only one legislator who is under detention. Even the sole obliging legislator, Kim Bang-rim, turned herself in this February after a long period of defying the prosecution’s summons to investigate her on allegations of having received 50 million won ($42,000) in bribes in October 2000, and only after new evidence surfaced about other bribes that she had accepted. Mr. Chyung himself had been indicted for receiving 40 million won five years ago, but kept his seat and even managed to become chairman of his party.
When a legislator is found guilty, he loses his seat ― or so the law says. In practice, Assembly members have come up with some wonderful excuses to refuse prosecution summons and to delay their hearings. They usually manage to keep their seats until the Supreme Court makes a final decision. Consequently, these fake legislators stay in the Assembly and get paid tax money and collect illegal campaign funds again.
There are only nine months left in the present National Assembly term. If they manage to delay investigations and trials for nine months, legislators whose guilt is self-evident can stay as lawmakers till the end of the term. Should we let this unfair and ridiculous situation continue? Should we continue this system of legislative immunity that is misused to create this unfair and ridiculous situation?
The problem is that the immunity is provided for in the constitution. It would be hard to revise the constitution for this single problem only. But it should be on the list should the revision of the constitution be discussed in the future. Because there are no guarantees that we will not have any “bad governments” in the future, the system should not be dismantled; but provisions must be made to make sure that it is not used to shelter legislators from crimes. While we wait for the revision of the constitution, we should still take measures to prevent the abuse of these privileges. As a judge once suggested, we could require that the detention warrants sought against legislators must be acted on by the Assembly within 10 or 12 days and regard it as consent should the bill not be processed by the Assembly by that time.
Above all, we must create a social atmosphere that makes it impossible, or at least more difficult, for legislators to abuse their privileges. Public opinion should react to such a degree as to make any lawmaker who refuses to appear at the prosecution’s office a pariah. Persons who hide in the National Assembly building even after receiving bribes should be made unable to show their faces in public again. Civic groups could organize a movement demanding lawmakers to make a pledge at the opening session of next year’s new National Assembly that they would voluntarily give up their legislative immunity. Privileges belong to those who are worthy of them.
* The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Song Chin-hyok