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[Newsmaker] Ex-President Chun found guilty of libel for denying civilians were shot from helicopters during Gwangju Uprising

Former President Chun Doo-hwan arrives at the Gwangju District Court on Monday. (Yonhap)
Former President Chun Doo-hwan arrives at the Gwangju District Court on Monday. (Yonhap)
Former President Chun Doo-hwan on Monday received a suspended prison sentence for libel with regard to the massacre of civilians during the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising.

The Gwangju District Court found Chun guilty of defamation for comments he made about an activist priest who had shared eyewitness accounts of the bloody crackdown, which was led by the military virtually under Chun’s leadership, against pro-democracy activists in Gwangju.

The court sentenced the 89-year-old former leader to eight months in prison, suspended for two years. It was not immediately known whether he would appeal the ruling. The prosecution, which had sought a 18-month jail term for Chun, was considering an appeal.

In its ruling, the judge said shots appeared to have been fired at civilians from military helicopters as claimed by the late priest Cho Chul-hyun.

Chun denied the notion and called Cho a liar.

In a controversial memoir published in 2017, the ex-president called the priest “Satan wearing a mask,” denying his accounts and claiming no shots were fired upon civilians from helicopters. He was indicted without detention in May 2018 for defamation.

Under the local law, those who defame the deceased can be sentenced to up to two years in prison or fined as much as 5 million won ($4,500). Cho, who participated in the Gwangju Uprising as a demonstrator, died in 2016 at the age of 79.

The focal point of the trial was whether or not the helicopter shootings had happened.

Prosecutors argued that soldiers having fired on civilians from helicopters is backed by military records, by scientific analysis of bullet marks in Gwangju and by eyewitness testimony, and is not open to dispute or something that needs to be proven.

They brought in 20 witnesses who testified to the shootings.

Chun’s defense argued that no bullets were ever fired from helicopters, adding that there was no objective evidence to support the claim. If shots were ever fired, there would be many more witnesses than presented by the prosecution, the defense claimed.

They also called in former military officials in past hearings who testified that no shootings from helicopters were ordered or conducted during the uprising.

In a hearing in April, Chun testified that he was unaware of any shooting from helicopters. The ex-president, who led an authoritarian government from 1980 to 1988, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Delivering its verdict, the Gwangju court said that analysis results from the National Forensic Service and a number of credible eyewitness accounts support the existence of helicopter firings and it is logical to think Chun had knowledge of the shootings, given his status and actions at that time.

The court asked Chun to make a sincere apology to people for the massacre, saying he has never shown any sign of remorse during his past trials and published the memoirs to denounce the victims.

Chun was found dozing off during Monday’s court session, which lasted for about an hour, and did not respond to the call for a public apology.

A number of civic groups outside the court held rallies and denounced Chun for the massacre, calling for a tougher penalty for Chun. During the unrest on May 18, 1980, more than 200 civilians were killed and 1,800 others were wounded.

By Ko Jun-tae (