Ruling on claims for state abuse

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Ruling on claims for state abuse

The Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that the Supreme Court’s decision to deny victims of government abuse the right to seek compensation was unconstitutional, opening up the path for victims of past authoritarian regimes to seek justice for wrongs done to them.

The Supreme Court had incorrectly interpreted existing laws, said the Constitutional Court ruling, in deciding that it was too late for victims to seek reparations from the government. The existing law compensating victims who suffered while fighting for democracy does not rule out the right to seek compensation, it added.

These rulings pertain to a series of cases involving victims imprisoned and punished under emergency decrees in the 1972 Constitution. President Park Chung Hee, who ruled Korea from 1961 to 1979, proclaimed the constitution, commonly referred to as the Yushin Constitution, in an attempt to remain in power indefinitely. Emergency decrees No. 1, 2 and 9, which banned all activities opposing or slandering the government, was used by the regime to arbitrarily crack down on all dissidence.

The decrees resulted in the unfair detentions of many ordinary citizens.

In 1968, a young fisherman named Song Sang-hwan was kidnapped by North Korean sailors while fishing on the Yellow Sea.

He was returned home half a year later, but the South Korean government accused him of being a spy and sentenced him to three and a half years in prison.

In 1972, Song was charged with violating emergency decree No. 9 for insulting the president, was tortured and given two more years in jail.

Baek Ki-wan, a prominent left-wing politician, was jailed in 1974 for transgressing emergency decree No. 1 by leading a rally against the Yushin Constitution.

In 2013, the Constitutional Court unanimously declared emergency decrees No. 1, 2 and 9 unconstitutional. Baek filed the first lawsuit demanding compensation from the state, followed by two other victims including Song.

All three cases were rejected in 2015 by the Supreme Court under former Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae, who said that the statute of limitations to request damages from the government had expired. It also said the victims had effectively been given reparations through a law compensating those in the democratization movement who suffered.

The Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that cases involving human rights violations should not be subject to the same statute of limitations as civil law cases. The existing compensation law also does not address emotional damages.

Many judicial analysts had expressed concern about the judgment. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter for most legal issues after a first ruling and an appeal, while the Constitutional Court is the court of last resort only for specialized constitutional cases.

The Constitutional Court tried to allay such concerns, however, by saying that its ruling does not overturn the Supreme Court’s rulings in Baek and Song’s cases. But it can be used in any new case requesting compensation for past government abuse.

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