Minister takes hard line on violent, masked protesters

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Minister takes hard line on violent, masked protesters

Minister of Justice Kim Hyun-woong vowed ahead a large-scale anti-government protest on Dec. 5 to enforce stronger prison sentences for violent masked demonstrators at rallies.

“We will take stern legal action against those who lead illegal rallies or instigate extreme violent acts,” Kim said Friday in a national address, issuing a zero-tolerance policy for violence at protests.

His warning comes a week before a second round of large-scale rallies organized by labor unions that is slated for Dec. 5, intended as follow-up to a demonstration in mid-November.

“A few days ago, a bill to ban masked ralliests was tabled at the National Assembly,” Kim said. “Many developed nations also have laws that strictly prohibit the wearing of masks at rallies and demonstrations.”

Over the past two weeks, the ruling Saenuri Party has pushed to ban gauze masks or other face coverings at rallies by revising Korea’s Assembly and Demonstration Act.

The legislation would prohibit possessing or wearing masks at assemblies and demonstrations, and make it punishable to possess or transport a steel pipe. The ruling party claims protesters wear masks to avoid being identified when they engage in violence at public demonstrations.

On Nov. 14, the largest anti-government rally since 2008 took place in downtown Seoul, where some 68,000 people gathered to express disgruntlement on a range of domestic issues, including the Park Geun-hye government’s plan to institute state-authored history textbooks.

This led to fierce clashes between police and protesters, some of whom wore face masks or bandanas to cover their faces and wielded metal pipes.

A 68-year-old farmer was critically injured when he was hit in the head by a water cannon fired by police during the protest.

Earlier this week, President Park also asked the government to prohibit demonstrators from wearing face masks to conceal their identities during street rallies.

In a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, she likened masked protesters to terrorists from the Islamic State (ISIS). “The violent, illegal protests disregard the rule of law and are an attempt to render the government powerless,” the president said.

She also expressed her opposition to a follow-up rally organized by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) for 3 p.m. on Dec. 5, which is expected to draw 10,000 people.

On Wednesday, the Saenuri Party proposed in the National Assembly an amendment to the law to ban masks at rallies or demonstrations.

Reflecting the president’s wishes, the justice minister vowed that regardless of whether the bill on the mask ban was passed by the legislature, he would see to it that violent protesters who tried to hide their identity would still be punished under current law.

“From this point on, we will increase sentencing guidelines against those who wear masks or conceal their faces at the site of a rally, even if the law has not yet passed,” Kim said in his statement.

“We will take all measures necessary to ensure jail terms for violent protesters who have relied on anonymity.”

Kim also called for KCTU President Han Sang-kyun, who has been taking refuge at Jogye Temple in central Seoul since the Nov. 14 rally to avoid being arrested, to turn himself in. The minister likewise warned against anyone who tried to help Han escape.

“Clearly committing a crime but rejecting law enforcement and hiding at a religious facility, inciting the people and promoting unlawfulness is an embodiment of the destruction of the rule of law,” Kim said.

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

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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