Sunday, 28 February 2010

South Korea: "TIme to move" against death penalty

EDITORIAL: Capital punishment
From: The Korea Herald, 27 February 2010

In its second ever decision on capital punishment, the Constitutional Court ruled that capital punishment is constitutional.

The Constitutional Court's ruling on a petition filed by a provincial appeal court at the request of a 72-year-old man convicted of murdering four people upheld that the death penalty is a necessary punishment to protect the lives of the majority.

However, the 5-4 decision showed the Constitutional Court moving toward the abolition of the death penalty. In the 1996 ruling on the constitutionality of capital punishment, the court had ruled 7-2 to uphold the system. At the time, the court said that it was not proper to immediately abolish the capital punishment system, "given our current culture and reality." That statement had indicated that the Constitutional Court was in favor of abolishing the death penalty over time. Apparently, 13 years was not enough time to move away from the capital punishment system, which its opponents claim is state-sanctioned murder.

However, two of the concurring judges suggested gradually fixing the capital punishment system by limiting the types of crimes that are punishable by the death penalty and also reflecting the social milieu of the time. They said it would be preferable to resolve the issue through legislation at the National Assembly.

Indeed, Thursday's ruling is significant in that it asked the National Assembly to take up the issue. Given the controversial nature of the death penalty - both its opponents and supporters are unequivocal about their stance on the issue - the National Assembly is an appropriate forum for a meaningful discussion of the matter.

A 2006 National Human Rights Commission report said that about 70 percent of the population favored the death penalty. The proponents of capital punishment claim that with some 1,000 murder cases occurring every year, the death penalty should be maintained as a deterrent against heinous crimes.

However, the decision on whether to maintain the capital punishment system or to abolish it should not be left up to public opinion. Our National Assembly has failed to deal with laws on many controversial social issues - including abortion, adultery and the death penalty. Many of these matters have been brought to the courts for the Constitutional Court to decide. The Constitutional Court, on the other hand, has suggested that these matters should be decided by the legislature. The National Assembly should take a proactive position and not wait for the Constitutional Court's next ruling on the death penalty system.

Since President Kim Dae-jung - who was himself sentenced to death in 1980 but later pardoned - took office in February 1998, there have been no executions in this country. While there are 59 inmates on death row, Amnesty International in 2007 categorized Korea as having "virtually abolished capital punishment."

There are two bills on abolishing capital punishment that are languishing at the Legislation and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly. The lawmakers should start deliberating on this crucial issue that is often seen as a mark of a country's level of civilization.

Around the world 95 countries have abolished capital punishment while 58 countries maintain the system. Another 35 countries maintain the death penalty but have not carried out an execution for 10 years or more. Clearly, the trend is toward the abolition of the capital punishment. The time has come for Korea to make the move toward abolishing capital punishment.

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