S Korea reconsiders de facto moratorium on death penalty

16:56, March 18, 2010      

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by Kim Junghyun

South Korea is having second thoughts about its years-long de facto freeze on death penalty, as a series of heinous crimes and subsequent public outcry lead the nation turn its back on the virtual suspension.

Justice Minister Lee Gui-nam earlier this week added fuel to the highly polarizing debate by hinting at a possible resumption of executions, quickly earning applause and disapproval from both sides of the spectrum.

"The country is carefully reviewing the possibility of reviving capital punishment, taking into account public sentiment and diplomatic relations," Lee told press on his visit to a prison, where he ordered a construction of execution facilities.

BUDDING DOUBTS

The death penalty disputes were rekindled by an appalling murder of a 13-year-old girl in the port city of Busan, who was found dead in a water tank after being raped, and a similarly grisly rape case of an 8-year-old girl who lost most of her colon and genital organs.

Amid public fury, a recent poll by a conservative-leaning ruling party think tank showed 83.1 percent of the respondents backed the death penalty as a crime deterrent, while 11.1 percent opposed it citing human rights of death row inmates.

A surprising 94.1 percent of the respondents supported executions of convicts currently on the death row, saying a delay in executions infringes upon the country's criminal law, whereas only 8.6 percent of them opposed the idea.

The domestic political scene is also divided, mostly along the party line.

"Executions should be carried out within six months after verdicts after a court's final decision. It is not right to render the law meaningless," ruling Grand National Party spokesman Cho Hae-jin said in a statement.

"It is inappropriate to take advantage of the public fury to stoke up controversy over the death penalty," liberal-leaning main opposition Democratic Party spokesman Noh Young-min said in an official comment.

Meanwhile, South Korean Parliament Speaker Kim Hyung-o expressed strong opposition to a possible resurrection of the death penalty.

"I am opposed to a continuation of the antique system where public authorities are allowed to take lives of people in this civilized 21st century," he said in a recent statement.

"I totally understand the public sentiment against heinous criminals, but we need a serious and rational approach in deciding whether the death penalty indeed is the only alternative," Kim said.

VIRTUAL MORATORIUM

The death penalty here put more than 900 South Korean prisoners to death from 1948 through 1997, but the number of people executed between 1989 and 1997 shows a gradual decline in the overall executions, according to the Constitutional Court.

No execution has been carried out since December 1997 when 23 death row prisoners were brought to the scaffold under the conservative Kim Young-sam government, but death sentences have been handed down and the future of 59 death prisoners are still hanging in balance.

The 13-year-long suspension on executions, which led South Korea to be classified as an "abolitionist in practice" by international human rights group Amnesty International, came after late former President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kim Dae-jung took power in 1998.

A longtime human rights activist, he was sentenced to death in 1981 for treason under the then military government, but his sentence was later commuted.

"(There) have been countless cases where dictators have misused the capital punishment to oppress and wipe out democratic advocates and political dissidents," Kim said in February 2006 in a contribution to the Campaign of Amnesty International, voicing criticism against the death penalty.

LEGAL DISPUTES

The reignited debate follows the top court's five-to-four decision in February to keep the death penalty in place, 14 years after it first upheld the system in a seven-to-two verdict.

"The death penalty is a kind of punishment inferable from the constitution. It does not go beyond the constitutional limit on one's right to life or violate the provision that defines human dignity," the Constitutional Court said in a ruling.

But decision, condemned by human rights activists and religious groups as anachronistic, still gave some hope that the death penalty would be abolished in the near future, as two of the five judges in favor of the system said it is susceptible to abuse and should gradually improve in accordance with the public opinion.

"Considering the past experiences where the death penalty was abused, the system should gradually improve so that it could avoid possible misuse or abuse and being accused of giving excessive punishment," Min Hyung-gi, one of the judges who ruled in favor of the death penalty, said. E

Source: Xinhua
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