The Supreme Court opened a case on Thursday on a state-run facility for vagrants, 31 years after its owner was acquitted of illegal confinement charges.
The court held a hearing for Park In-keun, the late owner of the Brothers Home facility in the southern port city of Busan, which confined and enslaved thousands of innocent people, including children, for forced labor from 1975 to 1987.
Park was found not guilty by the top court in 1989 of illegal confinement of the facility's inmates, who were snatched off streets by police and officials and forced to work there under the premise of protecting them.
The extraordinary appeal to the top court took place at the request of former Prosecutor General Moon Moo-il in November 2018, when he apologized over the prosecution's failed investigation into the grave violations of human rights at the facility. It was the first official issuance of an apology for one of the most serious human rights violations in modern South Korean history.
Park Joon-young, the lawyer for the surviving victims, pleaded with the court that Park received too lenient a punishment for what he had committed against the inmates.
He said the government's directive that allowed forcible detainment and confinement was unlawful and that justice should be served for the victims through the extraordinary appeal, which was the only option left to "make things right."
The facility's terrible human rights violations became public in 1987, but the case was largely overshadowed by the death of Park Jong-cheol, a university student who was tortured to death while fighting against former President Chun Doo-hwan's dictatorship, he said.
"Can we say everyone is entitled to (same) human rights?" he asked at the court hearing attended by some 40 victims.
The victims, he continued, have gone to great lengths to seek help and make their case known for a long time, to little avail.
Prosecutor Goh Kyeong-soon asked the court to overrule Park's not guilty verdict on illegal confinement charges as the directive was unconstitutional by being "excessive" and "in lack of clarity."
"The prosecution failed to go to the bottom of the case and only indicted him on partial charges. I sincerely apologize," she said.
Surviving victims have testified that there was persistent and widespread physical and sexual abuse and forced labor at the confinement facility. According to the facility's own records, 513 died from 1975-1987, and some of the bodies were secretly buried. But the real tally is thought to be much higher, as the whereabouts of many inmates still remain unknown. Civic activists call it the Korean version of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In 1987, the prosecution indicted Park on charges of embezzlement and illegal confinement, but the top court only found him guilty of embezzlement and acquitted him of illegal confinement, citing the issuance of a government directive to round up vagrants to beautify the country in the runup to the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
In April 2018, the state Truth and Reconciliation Commission said the government's directive was unconstitutional and recommended the prosecution revisit the case to further investigate the allegations of severe violence and wrongful deaths there. The ensuing probe by prosecutors found that there were pervasive human rights abuses, which led to Moon's order to reopen the case.
Although a verdict from the final appeal, the date of which has not been determined yet, will not change Park's not guilty verdict, it will help victims get compensation and regain their impaired reputation if the court overrules its previous decision. (Yonhap)