Power abuse case set for retrial

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Power abuse case set for retrial

The Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a retrial of former President Park Geun-hye’s chief of staff and culture minister over allegations that they had abused their power to cut funds to liberal artists, demanding a more conservative and narrow interpretation of the abuse of authority charge.

The top court held a special sentencing session in the afternoon to announce its conclusion on the so-called “blacklist” scandal in the artistic community. Former Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Ki-choon and former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun were indicted in February 2017 on charges of abusing the power of their offices to cut off state subsidies to artists critical of the Park administration.

Expectations have been high that the ruling will set a more clear precedent for the legal controversy surrounding the ambiguous scope of abuse of authority. The Supreme Court’s decision to send back the case to the Seoul High Court indicates that the bar has been raised for the prosecution to win an abuse of power conviction.

“A public official who, by abusing his or her official authority, causes a person to perform the conduct which is not to be performed by the person, or obstructs the person from exercising a right which the person is entitled to exercise, shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than five years and suspension of qualifications for not more than ten years, or fine not exceeding ten million won,” said Article 123 of the Criminal Act, which governs “Abuse of Authority.”

The Supreme Court said the high court had rightfully convicted Kim and Cho of abuse of authority for having excluded artists and artist groups from the state subsidy programs based on ideologies and political opinions.

The top court, however, did not accept the independent counsel’s argument that consultations among the government ministry and public institutions such as the Arts Council Korea during the process of creating and operating the blacklist also amount to abuse of authority.

In January 2018, the Seoul High Court ruled Kim and Cho guilty of abusing the authority of their offices. Kim was sentenced to a four-year prison term and Cho a two-year jail term. Their punishments will likely be reduced at the retrial.

Insiders of the law community told the JoongAng Ilbo that the Supreme Court’s ruling will likely heighten the possibility of acquittals for key members of the former and current administrations who were indicted on charges of abuse of authority.

Former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae and former Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Woo Byung-woo have been indicted on separate cases of abuse of authority.

“The Supreme Court has created a more severe standard to convict someone of abuse of power,” said a lawyer who used to work as a high court judge. “The prosecution used to use it as a weapon against an administration, and the court effectively stopped it.”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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