The Supreme Court Thursday convicted nine protesters of killing one police officer and injuring 13 others by starting a fire during a violent clash with riot police over a redevelopment project in the district of Yongsan, Seoul, in January 2009.
The top court upheld a lower court’s verdict which said they illegally occupied a building’s rooftop in Yongsan to protest Seoul City’s urban redevelopment project.
The illegal occupation came after the protesters and their family members were evicted from their rental houses, which were later demolished as part of the project.
Seven protesters were each sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to five years, while the other two avoided immediate incarceration as the court instead gave them a probation period of three and four years, respectively.
All charges against the accused, including the illegal occupation, were acknowledged.
“We found no fault with the lower court’s ruling. Their occupation of the building and the violent action to keep the riot police away from the building was illegal,” said Justice Yang Seung-tae in the ruling.
With no more opportunity given to overturn the decision in the courts, the accused will ask the United Nations over the justification of what they call “self-defense.”
Petition to UN
Park Rae-goon, an advocate of the convicted protesters, said a group of lawyers will file a complaint with the UN Human Rights Commission.
“I believe the UN will take it differently,” Park told reporters after the ruling. “The police did not play by the rules during the crackdown. But the court ruled the protestors were fully liable for the incident. It’s unfair.”
The tragic incident took place on Jan. 20 last year. A group of heavy-armed riot police attempted to break down barriers installed by protestors to get to the roof in a predawn operation. The protesters strongly resisted by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at them, causing an out-of-control fire on the lower floors.
One riot police officer caught in the fire died and dozens of others on both sides were severely injured during the raid.
Liberal politicians took the incident as a fodder to put extra pressure on conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who was then struggling with adverse publicity for his image as a “Pro-rich President.”
Adding to the controversy was, ironically, the prosecution and the court.
The court conducted an on-site inspection which lasted nine months after the incident, drawing criticism of sluggish proceedings.
The prosecution was also criticized for refusing to disclose 3,000 pages of its 10,000-page investigation report with no explanation, raising speculation that this was a cover up of facts critical of those participating in the crackdown. It was later disclosed.