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[Editorial] Ill-advised protest

One senior prosecutor has tendered his resignation in protest against the process of revising the code of criminal procedure currently underway. Several others are offering to follow suit under pressure from disaffected ordinary prosecutors. Even the prosecutor-general is reportedly hinting at his impending resignation.

Their action could be justified if the revision bill were to restrict the role of prosecutors in administering criminal justice in any way. But the prosecutors are making a mountain out of a molehill when they claim the bill, soon to be signed into law, would damage the political neutrality they allegedly maintain.

But President Lee Myung-bak sounded conciliatory when he remarked Thursday on public prosecutors’ unveiled protest against the legislation’s decision. He was quoted as saying, “Prosecutors should not be seen to be taking collective action (against the legislation).” But they deserved a sterner warning, to say the least.

At the core of the conflict is the National Assembly’s decision to codify the latest accord on criminal investigations between the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office and the National Police Agency in the form of a presidential decree, instead of an ordinance of the Ministry of Justice.

The two law-enforcement agencies had recently agreed to allow the police agency to initiate criminal investigations on its own and have their accord written into a ministerial ordinance. Permitting the policy agency to launch criminal investigations on its own but placing them thereafter under the direction and supervision of prosecutors were minor concessions the prosecutors’ office made to the police agency’s demand that it be permitted to conduct criminal investigations alone from the beginning to the end when it is deemed necessary.

But the parliamentary Legislation-Judiciary Committee did not fully accommodate their accord when it started the legislation process. Instead, the bill that passed the committee and won approval from the National Assembly in a plenary session will require the prosecutorial concessions to be written into a presidential decree when President Lee signs it into law.

What is wrong with the legislation’s decision? The prosecutors’ office finds fault with the process of writing the presidential decree, whose promulgation would require prior approval from the Cabinet. Reportedly of great concern to the prosecutors’ office is the potential influence that the minister of public administration and security, as a Cabinet member, may exercise in favor of the police agency.

Another issue of concern is reportedly a consequence of a conflict between the security minister and the justice minister ― a potential delay in promulgating the decree. In such a case, prosecutors are allegedly concerned about the possibility of judicial police officers boycotting their direction and supervision, citing the absence of an established investigative procedure.

In voicing strong opposition to the legislation’s decision, the prosecutors’ office claims it is putting the interests of law-abiding citizens before anything else. It also holds that to write a detailed investigative procedure into a presidential decree will go against the constitutional principle of keeping prosecutors independent of the executive power for the unbiased administration of criminal justice. What it is actually doing now, however, appears to be nothing but throwing tantrums against what it regards as the police agency’s misguided challenge to its legitimate authority.

But it is the prosecutors’ office that has had the audacity to challenge the legitimate lawmaking authority of the National Assembly in the past, as it is doing now. If its memory is fading, the prosecutors’ office should be reminded that, by lobbying prosecutor-turned lawmakers, it recently scuttled a proposal to create a new law-enforcement agency empowered to investigate criminal cases involving prosecutors as well as other high-ranking public officeholders, such as lawmakers.

The problem with the prosecutors’ office is that not many believe that it has remained politically neutral in taking penal action. Instead, it has often been accused of handling waxing powers with kid gloves and treating waning powers with an iron fist. Moreover, it is seen to hold itself accountable to no one else but itself.

The latest protest it lodged against the legislature has bolstered such a disagreeable image, further alienating itself from the public. Few will shed tears if any of its senior prosecutors submits his resignation. They will do well to think twice before taking any action in this regard.
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