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Judicial reform plan faces uphill battle

By Kim So-hyun
Plans to launch a special agency to probe crimes committed by prosecutors and judges face a rough ride in the National Assembly amid a vehement backlash from the prosecution and judiciary circles.
The judicial reform package passed a six-person parliamentary subcommittee Thursday. It calls for abolishing the controversial central investigation unit at the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office that usually deals with high-profile cases involving politicians or other influential figures.
The unit, under direct control of the prosecutor general, has often been criticized for being politically influenced.
Ruling and opposition lawmakers on the subcommittee agreed that a special agency with independent rights on investigation and management of personnel and budgeting should be set up under the prosecutors’ office.
The reform package also bans retired prosecutors and judges from practicing as lawyers in cases handled by institutions they belonged to in their last year of public service.
The number of Supreme Court judges will be increased from the current 14 to 20, and a panel of citizens will be organized to force the prosecution to reinvestigate or indict by vote under the new measures.
The subcommittee also agreed that the right of the police to start an investigation should be expressly stipulated in the code of criminal procedure.
The prosecution, however, said the entire package was unacceptable.
Prosecutor General Kim Joon-gyu convened a meeting of the chiefs of high prosecutors’ offices Friday to discuss countermeasures to the reform plans.
“Abolishing the central investigation unit is like disarming the guard against corruption among top officials, politicians or major business-related crimes,” Supreme Prosecutors’ Office spokesman Han Chan-shik said in a briefing Thursday.
“Launching a special investigation agency when we already have an independent counsel system would be a waste of money and manpower.”
The prosecution also opposed the stipulation that allows the police to start an investigation saying it won’t protect citizens or their human rights.
Critics of the reform plans see them as a counteroffensive from politicians angered by the recent investigation and rulings against assemblymen who took money from an association of security guards in exchange for favorable legislation.
Six lawmakers indicted for violating political funding laws are currently on trial while dozens of their fellow assemblymen are seeking to revise the law to practically legalize political donations for legislative lobbying purposes.
Fully aware of public resentment towards their seemingly self-serving moves, several lawmakers denounced the subcommittee for announcing the package without sufficient discussion at the special committee for judicial reform.
“(The subcommittee’s announcement) has even aroused suspicions that (lawmakers) are trying to hold back the prosecution and the court in regard to the case on donations from security guards,” Rep. Yeo Sang-kyoo of the ruling Grand National Party said Friday during a special committee meeting.
The 20-member special committee is divided over most of the reform proposals, including the replacement of the central investigation unit, but is mostly supportive of the measure that limits retired prosecutors and judges’ practice as lawyers.
GNP lawmakers are mostly against the idea of a special investigation agency, but those of the main opposition Democratic Party are largely approving despite opposition from their floor leader Park Jie-won.
Park, a member of the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, said Friday that the DP has not endorsed the reform plan, adding it needed more discussion.
GNP floor leader Kim Moo-sung said Friday that the package could be revised as it goes through public hearings and floor meetings.