+ A

Committee rules that police brutality caused farmer’s death

Aug 22,2018
A committee investigating the death of an activist farmer from injuries suffered after he was hit by a police water cannon at a protest concluded on Tuesday that his death was the result of police brutality.

On Nov. 14, 2015, Baek Nam-gi was one of thousands at an anti-government rally that took place in central Seoul. He was shot directly by a police water cannon used by riot police to quell the protest. Baek, who was 68, was ferried to Seoul National University Hospital and underwent emergency surgery, but was unable to recover from a coma. He died of acute renal failure in September 2016.

According to the recent probe launched this February, after Baek was knocked to the ground, riot police continued to fire water at him and five other protesters attempting to help him for over 17 seconds. Investigators said a police captain surnamed Heo who was present at the scene told officers to continue firing without hesitation.

“The police must admit that they violated human rights by exercising unwarranted brutality [against Baek], and they must apologize to the victim’s family,” said the committee spokesman at the Seoul Seodaemun Police Station on Tuesday.

The spokesman also said that the police and a Blue House official contacted Seoul National University Hospital after Baek was admitted and allegedly asked the hospital’s director to assign the farmer’s operation to an experienced surgeon. The neurosurgeon who eventually took over the case, Dr. Paek Sun-ha, invited controversy by claiming that the farmer died of natural causes, ignoring the fact that Baek suffered a brain hemorrhage due to the impact of the water cannon.

Investigators say the police’s intervention in Baek’s treatment was prompted by fears that his death would put enormous political pressure upon them and the administration of then-President Park Geun-hye.

The committee will also advise courts to dismiss a compensation suit filed by the police department against the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the organizers of the November 2015 rally. The committee argued that the crackdown was not lawful, as the police had previously claimed.

The rally that took place that day consisted of around 100,000 to 130,000 people, according to the assembly’s organizers, or around 64,000 to 68,000 people according to police estimates.

Though organizers gained permission from the government to hold the rally, police clashed with protesters as some protesters tried to march into Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, an area which was off-limits for the event. After the rally, police claimed the rally’s organizers had asked labor union members to carry metal pipes and had planned to incite violence, which warranted a forceful response.

But the operations conducted by the police that day, the spokesman said, violated the legal principle of proportionality, as the police committed much more than the minimum amount of manpower necessary during the rally.

The police’s Operation Breathing Hole involved blocking off exits near police barricades, while Operation Cauldron Lid halted subway operation and placed heavy police presence around Gwanghwamun Station.

Such quarantine methods, as well as the deployment of over 20,000 personnel from over 267 police brigades, 19 water cannon vehicles as well as 1,278 support vehicles all point to excessive use of force by police that day, the committee concluded.

Investigators also found that the police fired 202 tons of water for over 6 hours and 40 minutes from their cannons, and that the water used was mixed with 440 liters (116 gallons) of tear gas and 120 liters of acid.

“Mixing water with a tear gas solution is clearly illegal,” the spokesman said. “Use of water cannons by police at rallies must be forbidden in the future, and the legal basis for the use of such equipment must be made clear.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]