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Parties clash over use of water cannons

By Ock Hyun-ju

Published : Sept. 12, 2016 - 17:07

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At a parliamentary hearing Monday, rival parties clashed over the legitimacy of the use of force by police during an anti-government rally last year that left 69-year-old farmer Baek Nam-gi unconscious. 

The opposition The Minjoo Party of Korea and People’s Party lashed out at the police for using force to crack down on rallies and failing to apologize over the protestor’s collapse. The ruling Saenuri Party called it a regrettable accident that occurred as police were carrying out their duties.

The hearing to find facts and evidence surrounding the use of water cannons came 304 days after Baek fell into a coma last November during a rally in central Seoul due to a water cannon blast that was mixed with tear gas. He was attempting to bring down police bus barricades with ropes.

Brought in for questioning as key witnesses were former National Police Agency Chief Kang Sin-myeong and Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency Chief Goo Eun-soo, who have been under criticism for ordering riot police to deploy the water cannons during the overnight rally.
Park Sun-rye (right), wife of farmer Baek Nam-ki, and his daughter Baek Dora-ji (left), listen to ex-police chief Kang Sin-myeong’s testimony during a parliamentary hearing held at the National Assembly, Monday. Yonhap Park Sun-rye (right), wife of farmer Baek Nam-ki, and his daughter Baek Dora-ji (left), listen to ex-police chief Kang Sin-myeong’s testimony during a parliamentary hearing held at the National Assembly, Monday. Yonhap
The opposition lawmakers quizzed Kang over his refusal to apologize to Baek’s family.

“It is not appropriate to apologize just because a person is injured or dead in a situation where specific facts are not confirmed,” he said. “As a former police chief, I will take due legal responsibility and make an apology if there is a judiciary decision.” Kang, along with six other police officers are currently under prosecutorial investigation.

He also justified the police decision to deploy water cannons, citing the need to keep public order and dismantle what he called illegal and violent protests.

“Protestors prepared illegal protest tools. The use of water cannons was the last resort to protect the unarmed police,” he said, citing 113 police officers who were injured during the protest. He added that no one apologized or expressed regret over those injuries.

“I believe that this society has legal systems and procedures for the public to express their opinions,” he said. “Violent protests occur because bad practices to solve problems by violence still exist.”

Videos played by opposition lawmakers showed the water cannon continued to aim at the farmer, even after he had collapsed, with those surrounding him staggering due to the water cannon’s blast.

Other videos played by ruling party lawmakers showed protestors using metal sticks and ropes to pull down police bus barricades.

Rep. Park Nam-choon of the opposition Minjoo Party raised allegations of police attempting to hide or manipulate facts. He pointed out that seven water cannons were in use, according to CCTV footage, instead of five as indicated in the police report.

Two current police officers, surnamed Choi and Han, who were in charge of using the water cannons at the scene during the rally, gave statements behind a curtain to conceal their identities.

Rep. Park Ju-min of the Minjoo Party criticized the police officers for loosely managing the life-threatening device.

“When your sight was restricted and when you can only assume the distance (between the water cannons and protestors) and the devices’ water pressure, can you still say that you can properly use the water cannons in such a situation?” asked Park.

The police officer, surnamed Choi, refused to answer at first, but later conceded that it was impossible.

“We saw the situation (of protestors being hit by the water cannons) through the CCTV, but our sight was limited due to the low quality of the monitors inside the water cannons,” said Choi. “We did not target a person. To safely use it, we directed the water jets up and down, right and left.”

In defense of police officers, Rep. Kang Seok-ho of the Saenuri Party said, “If there had not been illegal rallies, there would not have been any water cannons or violent acts. To root out illegal rallies, police should take stronger measures.”

Baek Dora-ji, the daughter of the farmer who remains unconscious, criticized what she saw as the government’s violent oppression of protests and its inaction to bring justice for her father.

“Doctors said it is rarely possible for my father to regain consciousness,” Baek said. “There was no apology from anyone from the government. We don’t know what is going on with the investigation.”

While seven police officials including Kang are under investigation, more than 1,200 protestors were taken into custody on charges of violence during the rally. Han Sang-kyun, a leader of the nation’s second-largest umbrella union, was sentenced to five years in prison for leading the rally.

The opposition lawmakers also took issue with the uncooperative attitude of police, citing the law enforcement agency’s refusal to submit an internal inspection report including statements from relevant police officers on the incident.

While the ruling party lawmakers said the disclosure of the report will influence the ongoing investigation into the case, the opposition lawmakers demanded the report be turned in before further questioning witnesses.

Before the hearing began, Rep. Hwang Young-cheol of the ruling Saenuri Party expressed discomfort over the rival party leaders’ decision to hold the parliamentary hearing without consulting other members of the Safety and Public Administration Parliamentary Committee.

Following months-long wrangling in the parliament, the leadership of the ruling and opposition parties agreed to launch a hearing on the farmer’s collapse in exchange for passing an extra budget bill in early September. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)