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Army justice under fire

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Published : 2014-08-25 21:27
Updated : 2014-08-25 21:36

Criticism is rising over the military’s apparent reluctance to revamp its exclusive legal system amid growing calls to improve professionalism, transparency and fairness in the military’s prosecution and court proceedings.

Following a recent spate of military crimes including hazing, abuse and even sexual harassment, observers pointed out that those cases repeatedly occurred because the military did not properly punish soldiers for their crimes.

Noting that military authorities are trying to keep their opaque legal system, citing security and “unique military circumstances,” they also said that the military judicial system should undergo major reform to keep pace with the open, transparent civilian system.

“There are a series of issues to tackle with regard to the military judicial system. Military commanders with no legal knowledge could influence court rulings and their arbitrary decision could undermine professionalism and transparency in court proceedings, and so on,” said Kim Sook-kyoung, secretary-general of the activist group Center for Military Human Rights Korea.

“We believe that except for issues concerning what military authorities argue is related to military security, other issues such as beatings, abuse and sexual harassment should be dealt with by the civilian courts, which could rule on those cases in a more objective manner.”

Last Friday, the Ministry of National Defense held discussions with the top brass to discuss the contentious legal system and other issues. But there was not any meaningful progress on legal reform. Ministry officials said that there would be more meetings in the near future to determine how the military justice system should be improved. 
Shim Dae-pyung (center), who heads a panel to reform barrack culture, attends a meeting to discuss the issue on Monday. (Yonhap)

The most controversial issue is that high-ranking unit commanders with no professional legal knowledge have the authority to reduce sentences meted out by the court on those under their chain of command. Military officials say the authority is needed to help commanders retain full, efficient control of their units.

However, critics say this authority can be abused to downplay or cover up a case based on the commanders’ arbitrary decisions. Legal experts also note that by allowing commanders to take charge of the entire judicial system, the military has breached the modern legal principal of separating prosecution and court procedures.

Another major bone of contention is that commissioned officers with little legal knowledge are among the judges at military courts.

The military argues that those officers should join court proceedings to provide their military knowledge to the judges to ensure fair judgment, and that the civilian Supreme Court would anyway render a final ruling on any case.

But critics say the current system deprives both defendants and plaintiffs of the right to have their cases judged exclusively by legal professionals. Some suggest allowing those officers to join the courtproceedings not as judging staff, but as jurors.

In 2007, the Defense Ministry expressed its support for the move to remove the military courts and commanders’ authority to reduce sentences, after a presidential advisory group crafted a series of plans to improve the military legal system in 2005. But the ministry reversed its decision in 2008 and efforts for legal reform lost traction.

Separate from the legal reform, the ministry has been working on improving the outdated barracks culture, which has been cited as a major reason for a series of physical and mental abuses in the military.

Among other issues, the ministry is considering public calls to introduce a military ombudsman. Some officers are against the program, arguing that the system would allow civilians access to all military sites, which could undermine military security.

The ministry held a session of its new panel to improve military culture Monday. The panel is to announce their plans to reform military culture around December.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)

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