Sunday, 28 February 2010

South Korea: "Dangerous decision" upholds death penalty

Editorial: Dated logic in Constitutional Court’s death penalty decision
From: The Hankyoreh, 27 February 2010

The Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that South Korea’s death penalty system is not in violation of the Constitution. Their ruling comes on the heels of the constitutional ruling over the same issue in 1996. At that time, the Constitutional Court said, “Although the death penalty system should be abolished, it is premature to annul the system at this time.”

Since the 1996 ruling, 38 countries around world have joined the list of countries that have abolished the death penalty, bringing the total number of countries who have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice to 139. Abolishing the death penalty is also a precondition of joining the European Union. The abolition of the death penalty has now become a measuring stick to determine which countries are advanced in human rights.

There is no reason for South Korea to lag far behind in this trend. South Korea has been recognized by Amnesty International as “an abolitionist in practice.” Many Korean citizens feel pride when reflecting upon our society’s development and the further enhancement of our collective consciousness. This new era has not changed direction, but rather the Constitutional Court has chosen to remain in the past. We cannot help but to ask whether the Constitutional Court’s decision reflects their attempt to read the minds of conservative factions in our society.

The logic that the Constitutional Court issued a decision in line with the Constitution is dated. The Constitutional Court justices issuing the majority opinion stated, “The death penalty is a legitimate punishment for heinous crimes, and by instating the death penalty, we can prevent those types of crimes from occurring.” The argument that capital punishment is related to crime prevention is an outdated theory. There is a wide consensus that it is difficult to prevent crimes through instating heavy-handed punishments. The possibility also exists that authorities could wield power as they wish using the logic of “proper punishment.”

In fact, current law in South Korea classifies 110 crimes in 20 laws as the subject to a death penalty sentence, however, heinous crimes comprise just 12 of the crimes including murder with intent. Because other crimes subject to a death penalty sentence include political offenses, criminal ideological violations, corporate offenses and administrative offenses, the possibility for serious abuse of the application of the death penalty exists.

We think the Constitutional Court has made a dangerous decision to uphold the death penalty, which will result in the restriction of basic human dignity rights. The Constitutional Court argued that there is no stipulation addressing the recognition of these types of absolute basic human rights. However, restrictions upon the right to life mean that the government can deprive a person of their life as a whole. In extenuating circumstances, no one can bring back a life that was wrongfully terminated by an incorrect application of the death penalty. Therefore, it is our belief that the death penalty infringes upon the basic right to life and is unconstitutional.

The justices who voted to uphold the death penalty, however, also demanded revisions to the death penalty system. This means that they also agree that it would be improper to allow the current death penalty system to continue as is. The lawmakers of the National Assembly should revise related law by accepting the spirit of the Court’s decision. The government also should also continue its past practice and refrain from executing prisoners on death row.

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