Blue House’s approaches to NHRC scrutinized

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Blue House’s approaches to NHRC scrutinized

Rights activists accused the Blue House of “infringing upon the independence” of the human rights watchdog by pressuring the agency to investigate possible human rights violations against former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his family.

A coalition of 15 human rights groups said in a joint statement Wednesday that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) isn’t “a subordinate government organization” to which the Blue House can freely hand down orders to open an investigation.

The fact that the Blue House sent an official document to the NHRC along with a petition to the Blue House sympathetic to Cho and his family was like the presidential office demanding the NHRC scrutinize criminal probes of the former minister and his family, the activists said.

The protesters also denounced the NHRC for failing to voice an objection to the Blue House.

The commission “should have expressed its firm stance that the case could infringe upon the National Human Rights Commission’s independence, but it hasn’t announced any such official statement,” said the activists.

“When the news broke that the Blue House mistakenly sent a document [to the commission] and asked for it to be withdrawn, [the commission] also should have said such action was inappropriate.”

On Oct. 15, Eun Woo-geun, a professor of journalism and communication at Gwangju University, uploaded a petition on the Blue House website urging the NHRC to investigate the prosecution for possible human rights abuses of former Justice Minister Cho and his family.

Cho served only 35 days as justice minister before stepping down on Oct. 14 as prosecutors widened their probes into his family’s alleged corruption. Within a month, Eun’s petition garnered more than 200,000 signatures, enough to require a response from the Blue House.

According to a high-level Blue House official this week, the Blue House sent an official document to the NHRC on Jan. 7 describing the Blue House petition and asking whether it can “cooperate” with the Blue House in relaying a response to the public. Later that same day, someone from the NHRC explained to a Blue House official over the phone that the commission could not officially respond to the matter because it’s an independent organ, but it could open an investigation if the Blue House formally referred the petition to the commission.

On Jan. 9, the Blue House recorded a video of its presidential secretary for digital communication, Kang Jeong-soo, who explained that the Blue House has sent an “official document” to the NHRC about the Blue House petition. Kang said the document was signed by President Moon Jae-in’s chief of staff, Noh Young-min.

The NHRC informed the Blue House, according to Kang in the video, that if the commission determines prosecutors indeed violated the rights of Cho and his family, as the Blue House petition charged, then the commission could launch a probe.

According to the high-level Blue House official, right after the Blue House wrapped up the recording of Kang’s response to the Blue House petition on Jan. 9, a lower-level official in the presidential office “accidentally” sent another Blue House official document to the NHRC, which said the Blue House would formally “refer” the Blue House petition to the NHRC.

The second document carried far more weight than the first Blue House document sent two days earlier, because formally referring the case would mean the presidential office is asking the NHRC to open an investigation into prosecutors who probed Cho and his family.

Upon realizing that the second document was accidentally sent, a Blue House official called the NHRC on Jan. 9 to explain the mistake and asked to withdraw the document, to which the NHRC agreed, said the high-level Blue House official.

On Monday, Kang’s recorded message was uploaded on the Blue House’s social media accounts, including Facebook, provoking a fierce backlash from Moon critics, who accused the Blue House of pressuring the NHRC.

Immediately after the recording was uploaded, the NHRC asked the Blue House to leave the second document’s withdrawal on official record, to which the Blue House agreed and sent another document to the NHRC asking for the second document to be withdrawn, said the high-level Blue House official.

When the NHRC announced Tuesday that it has “sent back” a Blue House document about a petition on the Blue House’s request, without saying it received two different versions, local media immediately reported that the Blue House relented to public criticism.

But the high-level Blue House official denied this Wednesday and elaborated the entire process, saying the first cooperation document was still valid. The NHRC vaguely said Monday that it hasn’t opened an investigation into prosecutors yet because the Blue House document wasn’t a formal request asking the NHRC to investigate the possible human rights violation. The commission said it would “review” the document according to its “internal process and related laws.”

By law, the NHRC must investigate cases that have been filed to the commission as a petition.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, KIM JUN-YOUNG [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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