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South Korea: Violent Crackdown against Sewol Ferry Protesters Indicates Backsliding in Democracy

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(Bangkok, 26 April 2015) – The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a regional human rights group with members across Asia including South Korea, strongly condemned the recent police crackdown on protesters in Seoul demanding an independent and impartial investigation into the Sewol Ferry disaster which killed 304 people a year ago. FORUM-ASIA warned that the crackdown is a signal of the shrinking democratic space in the country and questioned the government over the excessive use of force, which included the deployment of water cannons and tear gas on demonstrators, including members of the victims’ families and use of police buses to totally block movement.

On 18 April 2015, thousands of protesters gathered in front of Seoul city hall to hold a memorial ceremony before moving to the Gwanghwamun Square to march towards the presidential office, requesting the government to establish an independent inquiry into the Sewol Ferry incident. About 13,700 police officers and 477 police buses were deployed to block the road to the presidential office and to control the ceremonial area in Gwanghwamun Square and Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul. The police indiscriminately fired water cannons and tear gas, which resulted in scores of demonstrators being injured. The police also used buses to barricade streets and restrict the movement of peaceful demonstrators. The police buses blocked a large area around the presidential office, including main roads, which made it difficult for local residents to go home. The government’s excessive use of force created unnecessary clashes between protesters and police forces.

 “The excessive use of force by the police during the protest was absolutely unnecessary, utterly disproportionate and in contravention of international human rights standards relating to policing of assemblies,” said John Liu, FORUM-ASIA’s South & East Asia Programme Manager, referring to the international human rights standards, including those established under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. “Moreover, the use of police buses as barricades to cordon off traffic and block demonstrations has been ruled unconstitutional according to a decision by the Constitutional Court in June 2011. The police’s explanation that they had to do it to ‘maintain order’ is no more than a flimsy excuse,” Liu added.

During the protest, around 100 protesters were arrested under articles 20-1 and 2 of the Assembly and Demonstration Act (Dispersion of Assembly or Demonstration) and article 185 of the Penal Code (General Obstruction of Traffic). Those arrested included 21 members of the victims’ families and 5 minors.

The Korean people have the right to seek the truth and demand accountability in relation to the Sewol Ferry disaster and they have expressed it by exercising their right to peaceful assembly, which is protected and guaranteed under the Constitution and international human rights law. The government should therefore respond to the protestors’ legitimate demands instead of suppressing their fundamental freedoms,” noted John Liu.

The regional human rights group expressed its concerns over the shrinking space for people’s participation in South Korea, which indicates a backsliding in democracy under Park Geun-hye’s administration.

Taking the government to task over the repeated violations committed by security forces against peaceful protesters in the country, Evelyn Balais-Serrano, FORUM-ASIA’s Executive Director, stressed, “South Korea was once the role model for democratisation in Asia, but recent cases demonstrate a worrying trend of backsliding in its human rights record. The government must be reminded of its legal obligations both under the Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which South Korea is a party. It must not only respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly but also ensure that this right is protected.

Echoing the demands of the protesters, Balais-Serrano added, “The government must unconditionally drop all charges against the protesters and set up an independent investigation into the Sewol Ferry disaster as a matter of priority at the soonest possible time.”


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 and Geneva. FORUM-ASIA addresses key areas of human rights violations in the region, including freedoms of expressions, assembly and association, human rights defenders, and democratisation.

For further inquiries, please contact:

  • John Liu, South & East Asia Programme Manager, FORUM-ASIA, [email protected] +66 802828610
  • Pimsiri Petchnamrob, East Asia Programme Officer, FORUM-ASIA, [email protected], +66 813405409
  • Sejin Kim, Human Rights Defenders Programme Associate, FORUM-ASIA, [email protected] +66 926347034

Click here to download the press release (ENGLISH)

Click here to download the press release (KOREAN)