Ban on masks at protests revived

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Ban on masks at protests revived

The ruling Saenuri Party is pushing to ban the wearing of face coverings at rallies by revising Korea’s Assembly and Demonstration Act, saying terrorists could take advantage of the practice.

Saenuri Chairman Kim Moo-sung said Thursday at the party’s Supreme Council meeting, “As the world has stepped forward to eradicate the Islamic State (ISIS) as they hide behind masks, we need to step forward to eradicate illegal violent demonstrators hidden behind masks.”

“This is the time to review passing legislation that will prohibit the wearing of masks,” he added. “Developed nations such as the United States, Germany, Switzerland and Austria have decided that a ban on masks is constitutional in order to preserve safety and maintain order.”

The proposal came after the largest antigovernment rally since 2008 took place in downtown Seoul over the weekend. Tens of thousands of people gathered to demand national reforms, leading to violent clashes between police and protesters - including some who wore surgical face masks or bandanas covering their faces.

The party is preparing legislation to prohibit possessing or wearing masks at assemblies and demonstrations, as well as making it punishable to possess or transport a steel pipe. It believes protestors wear masks to avoid being identified during violent acts.

According to the proposed revision, repeated violation of the mask ban could result in up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 3 million won ($2,577).

Similar legislation to ban the wearing of masks was initiated twice in the past but were shot down due to complaints that they infringed upon basic human rights.

Capitalizing on heightened worries about terrorism, the ruling party once more is pushing such legislation.

But Prosecutor General nominee Kim Su-nam said at a parliamentary hearing on Thursday, “As an investigative agency, a ban on masks could be more convenient but there is also opposition to this.”

The Saenuri Party is also working on passing a counterterrorism law that is opposed by New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) lawmakers.

While the ruling and opposition parties agree that the county needs a counterterrorism law, they differ on who should oversee counterterrorism operations. While the Saenuri Party said the National Intelligence Service must be in charge, the main opposition NPAD party is deeply suspicious of the NIS.

The country has increased its budget for counterterrorism and has been bolstering security. Police said Wednesday it arrested an Indonesian man who illegally entered Korea in 2007 on a fake passport and is suspected of supporting a terrorist group in Syria.

Saenuri Rep. Lee Cheol-woo said in regard to this case, “Because we don’t have a counterterrorism law, we were only able to charge him with forging a passport [and violating Korea’s passport act].”

BY JEONG JONG-MOON, WIE MOON-HEE AND SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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