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[Press Release] Amnesty International: Conscientious Objectors demand their rights from behind bars on International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

[Press Release] Amnesty International: Conscientious Objectors demand their rights from behind bars on International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

Locked inside in a recreated 8 x 4 x 2 meter prison cell in central Seoul, 20 conscientious objectors
demanded that the new administration establish an alternative service system

At 11 am on Monday, 20 conscientious objectors, National Assemblyman Min-joo Park and activists from Amnesty International Korea clothed in prison garb opened a press conference from behind the metal bars of an 8-meter wide, 4-meter deep and 2-meter high prison cell in Gwangwhamun Plaza, central Seoul to call for an end to their ongoing imprisonment and recognition of their human rights to mark 2017 International Conscientious Objectors’ Day.

South Korea continues to imprison more young men for conscientious objection than any other country on earth. At the end of April 2017, at least 397 conscientious objectors were imprisoned in South Korean jails simply for exercising the universally recognized right to object to military service for reasons of conscience. To date, more than 19,000 South Korean men have been imprisoned over the last 60 years for exercising their right to conscientious objection.

At the press conference, Dong-hyeok Nam who was imprisoned in 2002 for conscientious objection said, “At the time I announced my objection 15 years ago I asked that those who made the same decision as I should be given a different opportunity. I didn’t realize that this people would continue to be imprisoned for another 15 years.” Additionally, he emphasized, “Now it is definitely the time to introduce alternative service.”

People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy activist, Jeong-hun Hong, who is currently appealing his original sentence of one year and six months imprisonment handed down on 20 April 2017, added, “The lack of alternative service should not be the reason that the courts send conscientious objectors to prison any more. I appeal to President Moon Jae-in to introduce alternative service as soon as possible.”

National Assemblyman from the Minjoo Party, Joo-min Park who provided legal representation for conscientious objectors in the Constitutional Court’s pending case on the constitutionality of the punishing conscientious objectors and who is preparing a bill for the introduction of alternative service announced that, “The administration of President Moon Jae-in brings with it the necessary political conditions. We are now in a position where we must resolve this issue. I too will do my best.”

Amnesty International Korea Director Catherine Heejin Kim, she said, “This time the newly inaugurated President Moon Jae-in has indicated that he is concerned about this issue.”

“We have high expectations,” she added. “We hope those who have thus far been imprisoned and those who are preparing to be sent to prison for their religious belief or convictions will be given the chance to return to their normal lives.”

Despite initially announcing its intention to establish an alternative service system in 2007, the South Korean government has made no progress and continues to violate the rights of conscientious objectors by imprisoning them and failing to recognize their rights – even in the face of repeated criticism by the United Nations and the international community.

With President Moon Jae-in just days in office and in the global spotlight, Amnesty calls on him to live up to his promise to take action on conscientious objection to ensure that no more young men are sent to prison. In a response to a questionnaire submitted by Amnesty International to presidential candidates prior to the election, President Moon pledged to bring domestic law into line with international standards, to recognize the right to conscientious objection and “Ensure that, if conscientious objectors are not entirely exempted from military service, they have the option to perform an appropriate alternative non-punitive service of a genuinely civilian character which is under civilian control and of a length comparable to that of military service.”

We must ensure that the voices of conscientious objectors are heard and delivered to the new president so that South Korea can finally live up to its international human rights obligations and respect, protect and promote the fundamental rights of all citizens.

PRESS STATEMENT

To mark International Conscientious Objector’s Day we are calling on the government to stop punishing conscientious objectors and introduce an alternative service system.

As of the end of April 2017, at least 397 people are locked inside a cold prison cell for objecting to military service for reasons of religious, pacifist or other beliefs. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a total of more than 19,000 conscientious objectors have been imprisoned over the past 60 years and the amount of accumulated time they have spent in prison totals 36,300 years.

Public awareness over conscientious objection as an important social issue began in the early 2000s when Oh Tae-yang publicly announced his objection to military service on grounds of conscience.

The tragic situation of hundreds of individuals having to go to prison every year for following the dictates of conscience had become an ongoing problem in South Korea and elsewhere and eventually the South Korean Ministry of National Defense announced its plans to introduce alternative service on 18 September 2007 after considering the realistic need that “the current system that creates ex-convicts should be resolved by any means necessary.”

However, on 24 December of the following year, the government announced it was indefinitely postponing the introduction of such a system on the ground of a lack of public agreement.

The government’s position on the establishment of an alternative service system has not moved an inch since that day. In that time, the Government has done no more than carry out a few more public opinion surveys. In response to repeated domestic and international calls for the establishment of alternative service for conscientious objectors, the government has simply repeated that ‘social consensus is lacking’ like a broken record. Even when the UN Human Rights Committee ruled the imprisonment of conscientious objectors a form of arbitrary detention and a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or when a number of states recommended that South Korea introduce alternative service through the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council, the South Korean Government responded that a public consensus had not been developed.

While the Government has displayed a tepid attitude to resolving this issue, domestic and international demands to end the on-going imprisonment of conscientious objectors have been getting louder. In its concluding observations of the fourth report on South Korea for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee added the unprecedented recommendation that all imprisoned conscientious objectors be immediately released.

It has become a regular practice for courts to hand down ‘fixed-length’ sentences of the minimum punishment of one year and six months imprisonment and have also been consistently calling for a review of the constitutionality of the punishment of conscientious objectors as prescribed by the Military Act. Furthermore, since 2015 the courts have been handing down an increasing number of so-called ‘conscientious judgement’ not guilty rulings. In only the past three years there have been 21 not guilty rulings handed down and in October last year the first not guilty ruling was handed down to conscientious objectors at the court of appeal. The Constitutional Court is currently reviewing a case on the constitutionality of Article 88-1 of the Military Act as a ground for the criminal punishment of conscientious objectors.

As the Government itself revealed, it is clear that there is a public consensus on the need to find a way to improve the existing system that mass produces ex-convicts.

We are calling on the new Government to resolve this issue as a matter of urgency. Amongst those participants who have joined with us today, some are currently undergoing trial for objecting to military service as conscientious objectors as well as others who are currently awaiting trial. In order to prevent these people from being sent to prison, we need a response from the Government as soon as possible.

When running as a presidential candidate, President Moon Jae-in said in response to an 8-point human rights agenda questionnaire submitted by Amnesty International that “The right to conscientious objection is a constitutionally protected fundamental right of the highest value” and promised to “introduce alternative service and improve the reality in which conscientious objectors are criminally punished.” We hope that with these and the other such promises the new Government has made, no one else will be sent to prison for following the dictates of their conscience.

All participants
15 May 2017, International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

*You can download photos from the press conference for your use by clicking on the button below. Please credit all photos to Amnesty International Korea / Park Ma-ri.

ENDS

수신All media outlets
발신Amnesty International Korea
제목Press Release] Amnesty International: Conscientious Objectors demand their rights from behind bars on
날짜15 May 2017 IMMEDIATE
문서번호2017-PR-013
담당Tom Rainey-Smith, Strategic Programme (tomraineysmith@amnesty.or.kr, 010-6379-2273)
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