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[Editorial] Devil is in the details

The prosecution and the police have struck a deal to end an unedifying dispute on the right to investigate crimes. The agreement, struck Monday between Justice Minister Lee Kwi-nam and National Police Agency chief Cho Hyun-oh, is a compromise that balances the key demands of the two sides.

Specifically, they agreed to empower police officers to launch an investigation if there is reasonable suspicion of a crime and have this right stipulated in the Criminal Procedure Act. Thus far prosecutors have refused to recognize police officers’ right to initiate investigations, even though in practice the police do so without prosecutors’ approval in 90 percent of cases.

The two sides also agreed to delete the clause in the Public Prosecutor’s Office Act requiring police officers to “obey any official order” issued by prosecutors. The police demanded the repeal of the clause on the grounds that criminal investigations are conducted through cooperation between prosecutors and police officers.

The prosecution in return demanded that their authority to supervise and direct police officers be more clearly stipulated. Hence the two sides agreed to amend the Criminal Procedure Act to affirm the obligation of police officers to follow the directions of prosecutors in all types of investigations.

The compromise, mediated by Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik and presidential chief of staff Yim Tae-hee, thus addresses the main concerns of the law enforcement agencies. But as is always the case with any agreement, the devil is in the details. The accord failed to address some important details, leaving much room for conflict.

One such detail concerns the obligation of police officers to follow the directions of a public prosecutor. During the Monday negotiations, the top officials stopped short of specifying the scope of authority prosecutors have over police. This task was left to the Justice Ministry.

It seems likely the two sides will continue to quarrel over the issue. Indeed, they began bickering on it Tuesday with the ink on the agreement barely dry. NPA chief Cho said preparatory activities before an investigation do not constitute an investigation and therefore are not subject to directions from a public prosecutor. He added Justice Minister Lee agreed with that view during the negotiations. The prosecution refuted Cho’s assertion, saying a preparatory inquiry should be seen as part of an investigation. Presidential chief of staff Yim sided with Cho.

Defining the nature of a preparatory inquiry by police may be an important issue to prosecutors and police investigators. But ordinary citizens are not interested in such a technical matter. For them, a far more important issue is how far the law enforcement agencies go to respect the human rights of suspects in investigations. The two agencies would be able to resolve their disputes easily if they approached things from this perspective.
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