NATIONAL

Police response to farmer’s death sparks controversy

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Sept 26, 2016 - 18:26
  • Updated : Sept 28, 2016 - 16:09

Controversy escalated Monday over the call by the police for an autopsy on the body of farmer Baek Nam-gi, who died after being struck by a police water cannon during an anti-government protest last year.

Baek, a 69-year-old farmer, died at 1:58 p.m. on Sunday at Seoul National University Hospital, 317 days after he fell into a coma due to a water cannon blast that directly hit his head during the Nov. 14 rally. Baek was at the rally to protest against the government’s decision to liberalize imports of rice.

As Baek’s family and the public mourned the death of the senior activist, the police requested a warrant to conduct an autopsy on Baek’s body Sunday night, saying that the cause of his death is “unclear” and “disputed.” But the court rejected the application a few hours later.

On Monday, the police searched Seoul National University Hospital, where Baek’s memorial altar is set up, and seized Baek’s medical records. The court issued a warrant for his medical records.

The police decision immediately enraged Baek’s grieving family and other mourners and civic groups, who called it “an insult” to the deceased and an attempt to manipulate the cause of his death.

Lee Chul-sung, chief of the National Police Agency, told local media on Monday that they are considering applying for a warrant again after consulting the prosecution. 

“He was reported to have sustained a subarachnoid hemorrhage when he was first hospitalized, but died of acute heart failure according to his doctor,” he said. “To find specific causes of death and clear up any possible misunderstanding, an autopsy is necessary.”

The emergency committee of civic groups and Baek’s family vowed to block any attempt to conduct an autopsy on the deceased, lashing out at the police for diverting the cause of death to other illnesses.

“Ending more than 300 days in a coma, he passed away today. The cause of his death is clearly a water cannon blast. I think there is no need for an autopsy,” said Baek’s eldest daughter Baek Do-raji. “My family just wants to send him to heaven comfortably. It is an insult to surround him with police like this.”

An emergency committee of civic groups for Baek Nam-gi holds a press conference on the farmer’s medical status at the Seoul National University Hospital in northern Seoul, Sunday. (Yonhap)
While an acute renal failure was the immediate cause of the farmer’s death, the water cannon blast is believed to be responsible for a cerebral hemorrhage he was diagnosed with after being struck by the water cannon.

Doctor Woo Seok-gyun, co-head of the Association of Physicians for Humanism, said that brain damage should without doubt be seen as a major cause behind his death.

“We could not find medical statements that are different from what he was first diagnosed with -- a fracture in the brain and brain edema. The carinal failure is what he suffered while being hospitalized,” he said.

Doctor Kim Kyung-il from the APH also said, “It is clear that Baek’s death was caused by brain-related diseases like brain contusion. It is obviously not a death from his underlying illness.”

A medical examiner who inspected Baek’s body Sunday evening reportedly said that “it is difficult to deny that the water cannon blast had an impact on his death.”

Lawyers for a Democratic Society condemned the law enforcement agency for requesting a warrant, calling it an “illegitimate and unjust attempt.”

“Detailed medical records fully show the process of the death of Baek and evidence of damage (by the police). The police and prosecution’s attempt for an autopsy is to dodge responsibility for their lukewarm probe into Baek’s case.”

Baek’s death once again triggered debate over the use of police water cannons and the freedom of assembly in the country.

Civil society has accused the police of excessively using force to crack down on rallies and refusing to apologize over Baek’s collapse. The police said that use of force was legitimate to maintain public order and to dissolve illegal and violent protests. 

Koreans continued to mourn the death of the farmer activist across the nation. Makeshifts altars were set up at several locations including Hanyang University in Seoul, Gwangju and Boseong in South Jeolla Province, Baek’s hometown.

Tensions have built up around the memorial altar at the hospital, with police buses surrounding the area and police officers standing guard. Scores of students and human rights activists staged a sit-in in front of the hospital to prevent police from taking the body of Baek for an autopsy.

“The government hampered our efforts to raise voices by using water cannons and blocking the protest scene with police bus barricades,” Park Kui-ran, a 24-year-old student told The Korea Herald.

“Baek Nam-gi was hit above his chest by the water cannon, which is a violation of law and excessive use of force,” said Park, who was at the scene during the Nov. 14 rally, in front of the hospital building.

“As if the police were waiting for Baek to die, they started to line up and surround the hospital building as his condition deteriorated. It is so inhumane. There should be no more deaths by public authority,” said Park, citing some 3,600 police officers dispatched near the hospital on Sunday.

Opposition lawmakers scrambled to pay tribute to the farmer and opposed the prosecution’s autopsy plan.

During a high-level meeting at the parliament, Choo Mi-ae, chief of the main opposition The Minjoo Party of Korea, vowed to find out the truth about Baek’s death and punish those responsible for it.

“An autopsy opposed by the families of Baek cannot happen without their consent. I cannot help but be furious that the prosecution and police disrupt Baek’s final moments like this,” she said.

Park Ji-won of the People’s Party said during a high-level meeting with his party members that the autopsy is killing Baek twice. “The prosecution should thoroughly and rapidly investigate the case that led to his death rather than call for an autopsy,” he said.

The emergency committee for Baek plans to hold a candlelight vigil every evening at 7 p.m., calling for a special prosecutorial investigation into Baek’s death.

The parliamentary committee, aimed at finding facts and evidence surrounding the use of water cannons, was held on Sept.12 at the National Assembly, but failed to reconstruct facts about the cause of his death.

During the parliamentary hearing, the ex-police chief refused to apologize over Baek’s collapse, saying that it is “inappropriate to apologize just because a person was injured or dead in a situation where specific facts were not confirmed.”

The emergency committee has filed complaints against seven police officials including ex-police Chief Kang Sin-myeong on charges of an attempted negligent homicide. They are under prosecutorial investigation, but little progress has been made.

“His death increases the urgent need for the completion of a thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the excessive use of force on largely peaceful protesters including Baek Nam-gi himself,” said Amnesty International East Asia Regional Director, Nicholas Bequelin.

“Amnesty International is alarmed at how little progress has been made on this case 10 months after the protest. To date, not a single officer involved in the case has faced consequences for their actions,” he added.

Born in Boseong, South Jeolla Province, in 1947, Baek has devoted his life to fighting for democracy and rural farmers’ rights. He was expelled from Chungang University twice after protesting against the military dictator Park Chung-hee, the late father of the current president Park Geun-hye.

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