Civic groups oppose plan to weaken prosecutor general

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Civic groups oppose plan to weaken prosecutor general

Liberal civic groups typically supportive of President Moon Jae-in are condemning the administration’s overt attempt to weaken the power of the prosecutor general.  
 
The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) on Tuesday criticized an expert panel within the Ministry of Justice for having made unreasonable recommendations depriving the prosecutor general of any power to directly supervise an investigation.  
 
“The Judicial Affairs and Prosecutorial Reform Committee of the Justice Ministry recommended that the prosecutor general’s powers be decentralized,” PSPD said. “It, then, proposed handing over the powers to the justice minister and also strengthening the minister’s powers to make appointments of prosecutors. This is a bizarre plan.”  
 
On Monday, the reform committee of 17 law experts, named last year by then-Justice Minister Cho Kuk, announced a series of reform plans. The proposed changes, announced amid a monthslong power struggle between Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl, were largely intended to weaken the prosecutor general.
 
The committee has said the prosecutor general’s powers to supervise investigations should be handed over to heads of the high prosecutors’ offices nationwide. It also recommended that the justice minister be given powers to supervise the heads of the high prosecutors’ offices regarding their investigations.
 
The PSPD said it is paradoxical to deprive the prosecutor general of powers to oversee an investigation, while awarding that authority to the minister of justice.  
 
“Currently, the high prosecutors’ offices are doing nothing significant. They are only adding a rank in the hierarchy of the prosecution, so it is better to just shut them down,” the PSPD said. It also noted that heads of those offices are handpicked by the justice minister, raising concerns about their political independence.  
 
The PSPD said head prosecutors of district offices should be given the full authority to oversee an investigation. To assure the integrity of investigations, heads of district offices should be elected, instead of being appointed by the justice minister, the group said.  
 
Another civic group, Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), also condemned the committee’s recommendations on Tuesday.
 
“The proposed changes will actually harm the prosecutor’s political neutrality and independence,” the CCEJ said. “This plan must be shelved.”  
 
The CCEJ said the goal of reforming the prosecution is to prevent the prosecutors from becoming “slaves of politics,” but the committee seemed to be oblivious of the purpose.
 
“If the committee truly wanted to present a long-term vision for political independence of the prosecution, it should have deprived the justice minister of any power to intervene in an investigation,” it said.  
 
Despite the public criticism, the Ministry of Justice said Tuesday that it welcomes the committee’s recommendations. 
 
The ministry said it agrees with the committee’s view that the prosecutor general’s powers must be curtailed and that the criminal justice system should be overhauled to give more power to individual prosecutors.  
 
The ministry will likely begin drafting bills to change the laws governing the prosecution and the criminal justice system based on the committee’s proposals. The ruling Democratic Party (DP) controls the majority in the National Assembly and the bills will likely be passed.  
 
Meanwhile, more and more senior prosecutors irritated by the reform campaign are leaving the prosecution ahead of Justice Minister Choo’s reshuffle, scheduled for later this week.  
 
According to the Justice Ministry, Jo Sang-jun, deputy head of the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office and one of the closest allies of Yoon, expressed his intention to step down. Jo’s resignation increased the number of vacancies in the prosecution leadership to 11 as of Tuesday.  
 
Nicknamed “Yoon’s right-hand man,” Jo was promoted to the head of the criminal department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office to oversee all criminal investigations nationwide in July 2019, shortly after Yoon became the prosecutor general.
 
Only six months later, Jo was assigned as the deputy head of the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office, days after Justice Minister Choo took office. The appointment was seen as a demotion.  
 
Jo had worked with Yoon on many high-profile corporate crime cases, beginning in 2006. After serving in key posts, he was dispatched to work at the Lee Myung-bak Blue House to support the senior civil affairs secretary. He also worked in the audit and inspection department of the Justice Ministry.  
 
Jo is the fifth senior prosecutor to leave the prosecution in less than a week, part of an apparent protest against the Moon administration’s reforms.  
 
Kim Young-dae, head of the Seoul High Prosecutors’ Office, and Yang Bu-nam, head of the Busan High Prosecutors’ Office, stepped down on Thursday.  
 
Two more senior prosecutors also announced their resignations on Monday, expressing frustrations with the administration’s attempt to weaken the prosecution.  
 
BY SER MYO-JA   [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]  
 
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