Police chief expresses sympathy for slain farmer

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Police chief expresses sympathy for slain farmer

The nation’s police chief expressed condolences on Thursday over the death of a farmer activist who died after being hit by a police water cannon, while the ruling and opposition parties debate whether to conduct a special probe into the case.

In his opening remark for the Security and Public Administration Committee’s audit on police, Lee Chul-sung, commissioner general of the National Police Agency, expressed his regret over the death of Baek Nam-gi. The 69-year-old farmer from Boseong, South Jeolla, was shot with a police water cannon at an antigovernment rally on Nov. 14, 2015, and died on Sept. 25 after more than 300 days of treatment at Seoul National University Hospital.

“I pray for the repose of Baek and I offer my deepest condolences to his family,” Lee said. It was the first-ever mourning message issued by a police executive on the case.

Lee also spoke positively about his visit to the mourning altar. Rep. Pyo Chang-won of the Minjoo Party of Korea requested that he make the visit with lawmakers of the ruling and opposition parties.

The police chief also promised to improve safety measures on the water cannons in order to prevent similar incidents. Safety and human rights education will also be reinforced for police, he promised.

The opposition lawmakers, however, continued to grill Lee over the incident. They said police made a series of actions that stirred up controversy over Baek’s death, because it failed to offer an apology, investigate the incident or punish those responsible. Instead, the police made a decision to conduct an autopsy of Baek to verify the accurate cause of death and fueled public anger, they said.

A local court issued a warrant to allow police to conduct an autopsy by Oct. 25, but required police to obtain an agreement from Baek’s family. The family, however, refused to allow the autopsy.

Opposition lawmakers also continued to press the need to conduct an independent counsel investigation into Baek’s death. The Minjoo Party, People’s Party and Justice Party jointly sponsored a bill on Wednesday to demand a special prosecutor’s investigation into the incident.

“The National Police Agency has long insisted that the police troops could not see Baek’s collapse during the rally because they were standing behind the police buses used as a barricade,” Rep. Park Nam-choon of the Minjoo Party said. “But we confirmed through CCTV records that countless police were standing on the buses. Does it make sense that none of them saw the situation?”

He then said police have fabricated numerous lies about the incident, and an autopsy controlled by police is also unreliable. “We need an independent counsel investigation to lay bare the truth,” he said.

The ruling Saenuri Party, however, tried its best to stop the National Assembly’s passage of the independent counsel bill. “Without going through the Legislation and Judiciary Committee and achieving bipartisan consent, no independent counsel bill can advance to a voting session,” said Rep. Chung Jin-suk, floor leader of the ruling party, in the morning. “If National Assembly Speaker Chung violates the legislature’s procedure to support the opposition and attempts to arrange a vote, he will face another serious aftermath.”

The party also said the autopsy must take place because it is the first step toward laying bare the truth about Baek’s death. “It is illogical for the opposition to demand a special probe, while rejecting the autopsy,” Saenuri Rep. Yun Jae-ok said.

Rep. Oh Shin-hwan also said an independent counsel probe is allowed when a political neutrality or fairness of an investigation is challenged, and the opposition’s demand does not serve the purpose of the system. “The prosecution is currently investigating the case,” he said, “and we may consider an independent counsel probe if the investigation is seen insufficient in the future and the public still has doubts.”

Meanwhile, a new controversy flared after Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said the city will no longer supply water to police water cannons used to suppress protesters at major rallies.

“It won’t be allowed in the future,” Park said in a radio interview on Thursday. “Hydrants should be used to put out fires. It is intolerable that the water is used to suppress demonstrations. In the future, we will apply a strict standard.”

Police were baffled by the mayor’s declaration. “If the city doesn’t supply water,” a police official said, “water cannons are useless.”

According to police, each water cannon truck contains about 4,000 liters (1,057 gallons) of water, enough to be used for five minutes nonstop. Although the police operate water tankers, they also store up to 4,000 liters each.

The police, therefore, supplied the water from hydrants along the roads after informing nearby fire stations. “Because police and the Seoul Metropolitan Fire and Disaster Headquarters have a cooperation agreement, we sent requests to them and used the water,” the source said. The police also paid for the water.

The headquarters is under the Seoul Metropolitan Government, and cutting off the water supply will effectively bar police from using the water cannons to suppress protesters.

“During the November rally [at which Baek was injured], we used water cannons for six and a half hours from 4:30 p.m. until 11 p.m.,” the official said. “But without the city’s support, we cannot last more than an hour.”

At the time, the police used a total of 202,000 liters of water and 126,000 liters were from roadside hydrants.

Rep. Kim Chung-woo of the Minjoo Party also sponsored a bill on Thursday to revise the Framework Act on Fire Services to completely ban the police use of roadside hydrants.

Police showed concern that it would become practically impossible to control crowds at violent rallies, if water cannons are barred. “We don’t just use them for any rally,” a police official said.

“The better way of ending the use of water cannons is by holding peaceful, lawful demonstrations.”

BY SER MYO-JA, JUNG JIN-WOO [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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