Criminalizing protest violence

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Criminalizing protest violence

Over the weekend, the streets of downtown Seoul were once again filled with protesters. Commemorating the anniversary of last year’s candlelight vigils, the rabble-rousers caused violent riots and clashes with police.

Demonstrators chanted for a revival of the spirit that kindled the candlelight protests against resumption of U.S. beef imports and other government policies a year ago. They took over the stage set up for the opening ceremony of Hi Seoul Festival 2009, an event hosted by Seoul’s tourism division, in front of City Hall, forcing its cancellation.

Their recklessness turned to violence, with some masked protesters smashing roadblocks and throwing them at riot police, causing casualties.

The wild scene was a disturbing echo of last year’s candlelight protests, which turned the streets of Seoul into a platform for the public’s grievances.

When will we see an end to confrontations between citizens and riot police?

In a democratic society, everyone is entitled to freedom of speech and expression. But when that freedom supports expressions that veer outside of legal boundaries, it amounts to little more than violence.

Protests that disrupt the public order and diminish the nation’s competitiveness cannot be tolerated. They are perilous, especially in times of crisis such as these, when the country needs everyone’s support and cooperation to combat economic turmoil and unexpected issues such as the looming threat of a flu pandemic.

We cannot afford to waste energy and resources on violent clashes that only aggravate social confusion. We need to stop this tiresome cycle of violent protests.

Above all, Korea’s protest culture needs to change. The government should guarantee civic freedoms at peaceful rallies. But it must also take a stronger stand against violent protests, regardless of the rationale behind the demonstrations. The authorities need to be more aggressive in pursuing and punishing protesters who break the law.

Last month, we saw U.S. lawmakers led off in handcuffs for crossing the police line during a protest in Darfur. We, too, must take strong action against illegal protest activities. Protesters hiding their faces behind masks and using violence against the police should be prosecuted. The National Assembly must approve the bill authorizing prosecution of violent street protesters. Protesters incurring material damage must also be fined.

Without such stern disciplinary measures, violent riots will continue to recur and the police will be ridiculed by protesters.
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