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South Korea: Immediately Release Trade Union Leader Sang-gyun Han and Drop all Charges

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­(Seoul/Bangkok, 21 December 2015) – South Korean authorities should immediately release and drop all charges against trade union leader Sang-gyun Han, said the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) today. Sang-gyun Han was arrested for participating in various demonstrations recently, where protesters raised various human rights issues including: labour and farmers’ rights; the state-controlled history textbook; the Sewol Ferry disaster; and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

The arrest and detention of Sang-gyun Han, and other labour rights activists, is a violation of their right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association, as well as a blatant from of intimidation on part of the South Korean authorities.

Sang-gyun Han, President of the Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU), was arrested on 10 December at the Jogye Temple in Seoul where he had sought refuge for 25 days. On 13 December, he was officially detained at the Namdaemun police station, where he remains for questioning. He has been charged on multiple counts, among others with violating the Assembly and Demonstration Act and General Obstruction of Traffic (Article 185 of the Criminal Code). As he was one of co-organisers of the Sewol Ferry protests, the police claims he is responsible for other people’s violent actions during the protests.

The Korean authorities are also accusing him of being a ‘mastermind’ behind the 3rd Peoples’ Rally on 14 November where the police used excessive force against demonstrators. On 18 December, the police charged him with inciting violence (sedition) during the same rally under article 115 of the Criminal Code. The charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years imprisonment and a financial penalty of up to 15 million won (approximately US$ 12,700)[1].

The police has threatened to arrest the leaders behind the 3rd Peoples’ Rally for organizing an ‘illegal’ gathering based on claims they only had a permit for a ‘cultural festival’.

FORUM-ASIA is concerned that the police has denied Noriyuki Suzuki, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation Asia-Pacific (ITUC-AP), from visiting Han in detention on 16 December, on grounds of there being a risk of the destruction of evidence.

’Sang-gyun Han is not an instigator of riots, but a human rights defender who has been working tirelessly to protect labour rights in South Korea. He was exercising his fundamental and constitutional right to freedom of expression in order to protest a proposed labour law that will make it easier for employers to summarily terminate work contract’, said Evelyn Balais-Serrano, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

‘South Korea, as the next elected president of the UN Human Rights Council, should be leading by example when it comes to protecting and promoting human rights. But we are faced with a situation where trade union leaders are facing harassment and imprisonment simply for standing up for workers’ rights.’

According to media reports, the police is already investigating or targeting 793 officers and members of the KCTU regarding the Peoples’ Rally on 14 November. In the last two months, 25 members, including Han, have already been detained and 73 more have been booked without detention. The arrest of the KCTU leader is being seen as symbolic for the crackdown on the entire labour movement in South Korea due to his representative position.

Han has been on a hunger strike for 22 days protesting the excesses of the authorities.

‘The arrest and detention of human rights defenders illustrate the hostility faced by human rights defenders for their legitimate work,’ said Evelyn Balais-Serrano. ‘The Korean civil society space has been facing an onslaught from authorities. The increasing crackdown against peaceful protesters and labour rights movement clearly shows a backsliding in democratic values.’


FORUM-ASIA is a Bangkok-based regional human rights group with 47 member organisations in 16 countries across Asia. FORUM-ASIA has offices in Bangkok, Jakarta, Geneva and Kathmandu. FORUM-ASIA addresses key areas of human rights violations in the region, including freedoms of expression, assembly and association, human rights defenders, and democratisation.

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[1] Charges filed against him include: special obstruction of public duty; special obstruction of public duty to injure public officials; special destruction of public goods; general obstruction of traffic; violation of article 16 of Act on Assembly and Demonstration (matters observed by organizers); failure of dispersion order; hosting an assembly at banned place; and violation of article 11 of the Act on Assembly and Demonstration (Places Prohibited for Outdoor Assembly and Demonstration).

Click here to download the press release (PDF)