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South Korea is usually a model of adherence to the rule of law. But amid the continued anxiety to contain the threat posed by North Korea, standards have recently slipped.
Prominent human rights activist Park Lae-goon appeared in court earlier this month (20 July) after having been beaten and detained for peacefully demonstrating for the rights of farmers being evicted from their land because of expanding US army base Camp Humphreys.
The residents of Daechuri village in Pyongtaek, mostly farmers in their 60s and 70s, have been resisting eviction attempts since February. They say that the compensation offered is not be enough to buy equivalent land elsewhere and that their livelihoods are at stake.
A consultation carried out before the eviction did not result in the farmers' concerns being taken into account and appeared to be mainly for show, according to those protesting the eviction.
Lae-goon was arrested on 9 July. According to witnesses, he and other demonstrators were attacked by a group of people wielding wooden staffs, but police officers monitoring the demonstration did nothing to stop the attackers.
According to a local human rights group, one protester suffered a severe head injury and had his teeth smashed during the dispute.
Some of the demonstrators, including Lae-goon, went to the police station to complain about the police's inaction. They also complained that the police had blocked the road into the village of Daechuri, preventing residents from accessing their homes. But rather than consider their complaints, according the demonstrators, the police beat Lae-goon and other protesters and arrested them. Most have now been released, but Lae-goon remains behind bars.
"Everyone has the right to demonstrate peacefully and the police should be upholding this right, not attacking and arresting people who exercise it," said Rajiv Narayan, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International.
"The dispute over villagers' land around Pyongtaek should be settled by means of a fresh consultation that takes account of the farmers' concerns - not through force.
On the treatment of Lae-goon, Narayan said: "Park Lae-goon is a prisoner of conscience and must be released immediately. He has been detained… solely because of his peaceful campaigning for the Pyongtaek farmers."
The court's ruling was undecided at the time of going to press.
For more information, contact Amnesty International: Rajiv Narayan, international secretariat, +44 (20) 7413 5540. Email: Rajiv.Narayan@amnesty.org.uk. Website: www.amnesty.org.uk