Hansen’s Disease appeals trial starts at scene of the crimes

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Hansen’s Disease appeals trial starts at scene of the crimes

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Judges from the Seoul High Court look around Sorokdo National Hospital, Goheung County, South Jeolla on Monday. [NEWSIS]

An appeals trial of a suit filed by 139 Hansen’s disease patients asking compensation from the government for forced vasectomies and abortions from the 1950s to 1970s opened on Sorok Island, Geoheung County, South Jeolla, Monday.

Sorok Island was an outpost for people with Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy, for some 100 years. People who contracted the now-curable disease, were shunned by healthy people and forced to move to the island during Japanese colonial rule (1910 -1945).

A total of some 500 Hansen’s disease patients have filed five suits for compensations since 2011 claiming the nation conducted forced vasectomies and abortions on them. A lower court ruled in favor of the defendants last July. The government appealed.

On Monday, judges from the Seoul High Court visited the island for the first time to hear statements of the plaintiffs where the supposedly forced surgeries took place.

“I’d like to remind the plaintiff and the defendants that there are a lot of Hansen’s disease patients seated in this room,” said Justice Kang Young-su before starting the hearing.

The arguments from the patients and the government were in sharp contrast from the beginning.

“The victims are a socially vulnerable group and have aged, so they can no longer wait for compensation,” said Park Young-lip, the attorney of the patients. “I hope to reveal the brutality committed by the nation and urge it to claim its responsibility through this trial.”

“Despite the fact that Hansen’s disease is not passed down genetically,” continued the attorney, “the nation conducted vasectomies and abortions on the patients without their consent and thus degraded their human dignity.”

“I wanted to have a child,” testified one of the plaintiffs from the audience, who was diagnosed with leprosy when she was eight and moved into the island when she was 17. “But I had no choice but to follow the regulations and abort the baby. I hope this trial proceeds efficiently and can heal the hearts of Hansen’s disease patients.”

Park Jong-myeong, the government’s attorney, said in defense, “The surgeries were not forced. It had to be done because of the inevitable situation. The nation had no choice but to conduct surgeries so that the patients, who weren’t even economically sustainable, could stay on the island. The birth control policy enacted at the time also played a role.”

“I conducted vasectomy surgeries but it was all for the good of the patients,” said Kim In-kwon, head of the Wilson Leprosy Center and Rehabilitation Hospital, reported the Yonhap News Agency.

“It was more difficult for the patients to live if they are kicked out of Sorok Island for not receiving the surgery. It’s not right to determine what’s wrong or right using today’s standard.”

After the trial, the judges inspected the hospital where the surgeries were conducted.

The judges visited a meeting room where parents with leprosy met with their children. These children were either born before the parents came to the island or in secrecy on the island. They were kept in orphanages to prevent them from being infected with the disease and were allowed to see their parents only once a month.

“Worried about infecting the children,” said Lee, “the parents stayed far away from them. When they met, the parents faced the wind [to keep the bacteria from being blown toward the children] while the children stood with their backs to the wind.”

A lower court had previously ruled the government pay 30 million won ($25,800) to each patient who had vasectomies and 40 million won to those who underwent abortions, despite the plaintiffs asking for 50 million won in their suits.

BY JEONG HYUK-JUN, SHIN SOO-YEON [shin.sooyeon@joongang.co.kr]

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