Investigator loses defamation suit

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Investigator loses defamation suit

A Seoul court on Monday found a former investigator into the sinking of the Cheonan warship guilty of defaming the military by claiming it had delayed a rescue mission so that it could buy time to fabricate evidence to attribute the event to North Korea.

The Seoul Central District Court sentenced Shin Sang-chul, 58, who took part in the joint civilian and government investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan warship, to eight months in prison, suspended for two years.

The ROK Cheonan split in half and sank in the Yellow Sea on March 26, 2010, leaving 46 sailors dead. The incident also claimed the life of a rescue boat captain, who lost consciousness during the mission.

The government concluded that North Korea was behind the sinking, having torpedoed the corvette after sneaking into South Korean waters.

The findings prompted the South Korean government to suspend all inter-Korean business cooperation, with the exception of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, under new sanctions.

“The defendant defamed the defense minister [at the time] by claiming he destroyed key evidence [to determine the cause of the sinking] and that the military intentionally delayed its rescue efforts so that no survivors could be saved,” the court said in deliberations in concluding Shin’s criminal responsibility.

The court, however, did not find him guilty of defamation for online posts in which he claimed that the Cheonan had sunk after it ran aground and collided with a U.S. warship.

Of 34 posts scrutinized during the trial, 32 of them - in which Shin raised suspicions over the government’s findings blaming North Korea - were determined to be sound, with the court reasoning that the defendant was merely raising questions over the cause of the sinking.

Kim Tae-young, the defense minister at the time, and other senior military figures filed suits against Shin in 2010 over posts he uploaded in online discussion forums between April and May 2010 claiming that the Cheonan sank after it ran aground and subsequently collided with a U.S. warship.

He was later indicted.

In his posts, Shin also alleged that top-ranking military officials covered up the real cause of the sinking so that they could buy time to fabricate evidence.

Shin’s allegations, the court said, had significant social ramifications due to his status as a civilian member of the investigation team.

However, the court said that in delivering its verdict, it took into consideration the fact that Shin’s claims were the result of his “excessive desire” to determine the real reason for the sinking. His sentence is much lighter than the three years prosecutors sought.

The court added that it also took into account that the public would not be swayed by such groundless allegation given insurmountable evidence that showed Pyongyang was behind the ship’s sinking.

The case against Shin has served as a barometer for some experts of how far South Korea has been willing to go in tolerating dissenting views in regard to freedom of expression.

That was also evidenced in the fact that it took the court nearly six years to reach a verdict following the defendant’s indictment.

The ruling came after 47 hearings, during which 57 witnesses were summoned to testify and judges looked into classified military documents.

While South Korea credits itself as one of Asia’s most thriving democracies following years of military rule, critics have pointed to authorities’ use of criminal defamation as part of state efforts to silence and crack down on dissenters.

The indictment in 2014 of Tatsuya Kato, formerly the Seoul bureau chief for Japan’s conservative Sankei Shimbun, on charges that he defamed President Park Geun-hye raised questions about South Korea’s level of freedom of expression and its tolerance for accepting different views.

In November, the United Nations Human Rights Committee recommended in a report to South Korean government that Seoul “consider decriminalizing defamation” and, “in any case restrict the application of criminal law to the most serious cases, bearing in mind that imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.”

The committee also called on the South to “promote a culture of tolerance regarding criticism, which is essential for a functioning democracy.”

Tatsuya was acquitted last month.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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