Battle between prosecutors, police flares anew

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Battle between prosecutors, police flares anew

As public distrust of the prosecution reached a new peak over a series of corruption and abuse of power scandals, the police are demanding stronger investigative powers - with the backing of liberal presidential candidates.

Hwang Un-ha, head of a team looking into reforms at the National Police Agency, said Tuesday that the police should be given independent authority to apply for court warrants. “The prosecution has intervened in our investigations by using their power to seek warrants on behalf of us,” he said.

The turf war between the police and the prosecution has gone on for nearly 20 years. The most contentious issue is separating and redistributing investigative and prosecutorial powers, as Korean prosecutors have both. The police, who often conduct initial probes, say their roles should be redefined so the police would initiate investigations and the prosecutors come in at the indictment stage.

The police’s latest attempt is the fourth round of the battle, and observers think it is the first time the prosecutors are on the losing side.

The first round took place in 1998 when scholars and politicians discussed a plan to allow an independent investigative right to the police. The second round began with the election of President Roh Moo-hyun in 2002. Huh Joon-young, then-police commissioner, declared a war against the prosecution. “There are some things that do not exist on Earth. One is Takeshima and the other is the Korean police’s investigative rights,” he said. Takeshima is what Japan calls Korea’s Dokdo islets, which it claims sovereignty over.

The third round began in 2011 when the Criminal Procedure Act was revised. The police were granted the right to begin an investigation and to proceed with it. Prosecutor-general Kim Joon-gyu stepped down from his post in protest, but demands continued to expand the scope of the police’s investigative power.

The latest round of the police-prosecution turf war started with the series of corruption scandals involving high-profile lawyers and prosecutors last year. In July, Jin Kyung-joon became the first director-level official in the 68-year history of the prosecution to be detained after a major bribery scandal broke out involving the mobile and online game company Nexon.

After high-profile former prosecutors working in the Park Geun-hye Blue House were accused of taking part in the abuse of power and influence-peddling scandal that led to the president’s impeachment, public trust in the prosecution hit bottom. Kim Ki-choon, former presidential chief of staff, was detained for having black listed artists critical of the administration. Woo Byung-woo, former senior civil affairs secretary, was suspected of having abused his power.

“Taking into account the latest political climate and public sentiment, the chances are now the highest that the prosecution will be overhauled,” said Ha Tae-hoon, a professor of law at Korea University. “We don’t know what the outcome will be, but this is, in fact, the first time that the prosecution is under heavy pressures from both the public and politicians.”

Although the current Criminal Procedure Act allowed the police the right to start and proceed with an investigation, the police complain that most of the authority for an investigation and indictment belongs to the prosecutors. The police cannot end a probe without a prosecutor’s permission; prosecutors have the only right to seek court warrants for physical detention, search and seizures and arrests. Those who want to give the police stronger investigative power said the corruption in the prosecution stems from prosecutors’ unnecessarily strong authority.

“The Korean prosecutors’ power is so strong that you cannot find a similar situation anywhere in the world,” said Rep. Keum Tae-sup of the Democratic Party, a former prosecutor. “The prosecution must not be allowed to conduct investigations directly. It should just conduct secondary and supplementary investigations. The investigative power must be separated between the direct investigation authority and the right to command and control an investigation. The first should be given to the police and the latter to the prosecution in order to allow them to check each other.”

Lee Seong-ki, a professor of law at Sungshin Women’s University, agrees that the current system must be revised. “When investigators make indictments, there is a concern about bias,” Lee said. “There is a high possibility of distortion. Investigators should just investigate, and prosecutors should just prosecute.”

Concerns, however, have also been expressed about giving the police all the investigative rights. The Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office said that plan would not guarantee the protection of human rights.

“When the police have the entire investigative power, there could be an increase in unfairly detained people. The public has long wanted the prosecution to conduct a new investigation instead of following the police’s conclusions. We cannot ignore them,” said Song Gyeong-ho, a senior prosecutor in the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office.

Police agree that the force should be reformed before being given stronger investigative powers. “We are doing various studies to improve the police’s internal investigative structure,” said Hwang.

A third way is also being discussed. Some experts said new investigative bodies specialized in tax probes and corruption among senior public servants should be created and investigative powers should be distributed among the police and the new organizations.

Some presidential candidates have addressed the issue. Moon Jae-in, former head of the Democratic Party and the presidential frontrunner, said the prosecution must only be in charge of indictments, and the police should be given full powers of investigation.

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