Damages awarded in drawn-out case

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Damages awarded in drawn-out case

The Seoul High Court ruled yesterday that the government should compensate 65.05 billion won ($60.5 million) to a group of farmers who were forcibly stripped of their farmland in the Guro area during the administration of former strongman Park Chung Hee.

The compensation is the largest awarded in a single case, though the actual amount the farmers and their families will receive will likely increase to more than 110 billion won once interest is calculated.

According to the court, in 1961, the Park Chung Hee government forcibly took about 99 square meters (1,065 square feet) of the land from the plaintiffs, evicting the farmers in order to construct the Guro Industrial Complex.

Six years later, the land owners filed a suit against the government, claiming that the property had been granted to them by the Seoul Metropolitan Government through legal means.

Their claim was supported during the original trial, though the ruling was reversed in the appellate court. The Supreme Court, however, ruled again in favor of the farmers, sending the case back to the Seoul High Court.

By then, the military regime had stepped in, pressuring the plaintiffs to give up their case. President Park Chung Hee, meanwhile, ordered the justice minister to “take measures in the government’s favor.”

Governmental authorities, including in the prosecutors’ office and the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, blackmailed the plaintiffs, launching an investigation against them and filing a counter suit, as well as charging them with fraud.

The authorities illegally detained the land owners, torturing them and forcing them to choose between withdrawing their suit or going to prison over false accusations, said Ham Mu-seok, 71, whose father was one of the men who lost his land during the Park administration.

By the 1970s, many of the farmers ultimately gave up on the suit and were released from illegal detention. But the 41 who defied the authorities’ demands were tried and sentenced to eight to 10 months in prison, with their terms suspended for two years.

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that the government should claim the land.

However, nearly 20 years later, in July 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission decided to shed light on the case, stating that the government at the time had abused its authority.

Accordingly, the plaintiffs in the original trial called for the resumption of litigation and the Seoul High Court accepted their request without holding a retrial.

“The plaintiffs withdrew the litigation because of intimidation from the government, which included illegal detention and physical abuse,” the court said yesterday.

“The withdrawal of litigation against their intention is not legally valid, so the case is still pending in the court [until now].”

Separately, in 2011, those who were sentenced to prison during the 1970s were cleared of any charges after a retrial.

“My father talked about the land every day until he died in 1998,” Ham said yesterday. “I have retrieved my father’s land after nearly 50 years. He would have been very satisfied to see this.”

BY KIM BONG-MOON, Noh jin-ho [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]

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