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South Korea: Ex-Police Chief Jailed for Defaming Deceased President

A former South Korean police chief was sentenced to a 10-month in jail for falsely accusing the deceased former president of maintaining slush fund bank accounts under assumed names. The court's decision was met with praise, but some net users complained that the ruling was made too late after plenty of damage had already been done.

Caricature of ex-police chief, Cho Hyun-oh

Caricature of ex-police chief, Cho Hyun-oh. Image by Flickr user @okkokin (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Cho Hyun-oh has been unpopular among liberals and human rights groups for alleged monitoring of civilians and critics [ko] and directing violent clampdowns [ko] on protests that claimed dozens of lives. In what is believed to have been a politically motivated corruption probe against the beloved former president Roh Moo-hyun, Cho claimed the revelation of Roh's secret bank accounts drove him to commit suicide [ko].

Cho said he got the information on the secret accounts from anonymous source, a claim that he failed to verify until now and that many consider to be a groundless conjecture [ko]. The Seoul Central District Court convicted Cho of posthumously defaming the ex-president and took him to court custody on February 20, 2013.

The legal community has applauded the ruling [ko], but the damage may be difficult to undo:  

@histopian: “노무현이 자살한 건 거액의 차명계좌가 발각됐기 때문”이라고 했던 전 경찰청장 조현오씨가 법정구속됐군요. 하지만 아직도 그의 말을 믿는 사람 많을 겁니다. 사실 여부에 관계없이 그저 제가 믿고 싶은 대로 믿는 사람들.

@histopian: Ex-police chief Cho Hyun-oh, who claimed “the reason (ex-president) Roh Moo-hyun killed himself is because false-name bank accounts with huge amounts of slush funds were revealed” is being taken into court custody. However, there are so many people out there still trusting his claims. Those people, regardless of this (newly found) truth, choose to believe what they want to believe.

The reformist Roh's death is remembered as one of the most tragic events in recent Korean history, and resulted in intense conflicts and divisions between right-wing groups and progressives.

@100hyeryun: 조현오를 법정구속한 이성호 판사의 양형이유 “피고인의 발언으로 국민은 뭔가 있겠지라는 의심을 갖게 됐고 그런 의심은 노전대통령을 지지하는 국민과 비판하는 국민 사이에 너무나 큰 국론분열을 일으켰다.”핵심을 찌른 판결 이유였습니다.

@100hyeryun: Judge Lee Sung-ho who took Cho Hyun-ho into court custody reasoned: “the accused's (Cho) remarks have misled people to assume (that there must be) ‘something fishy going on around the ex-president’ and such doubts have given birth to a huge divide between pro-Roh people and critics of Roh.” His explanation hit the nail right on the head.

Many net users, while supporting such ruling, questioned why it took so long. Comparing it with the unprecedentedly quick arrest of pastor Jo [ko] under charges of spreading false rumors against then President-elect Park Geun-hye, journalist @welovehani wrote [ko]:

@welovehani: 박근혜 허위사실 유포 혐의 피고발 목사 하루만에 체포한 검찰. 노무현 허위사실 유포 혐의 피고발 조현오. 검찰 출석까지 1년9개월.

@welovehani: It took only a day to arrest the pastor who was convicted of spreading false rumors about Park Geun-hye. However, with Cho Hyun-oh, who was convicted of spreading false rumors about Roh, it took a year and nine months to finally bring him to trial.

Although many cheered the news of Cho's arrest, a minority of Twitter users debated whether arresting someone for defamation was an appropriate form of punishment in the first place:

@sungsooh: 물론 조현오씨 사례는 고위직에 있는 사람의 무책임한 발언이었고 후속행위 등을 고려할 때 죄질도 나쁘다고 봅니다. 명예훼손죄가 존치하는 한 당연히 유죄라고 봅니다만, 그럼에도 명예훼손에 대해 인신구속을 하는 것은 찬성하기 어렵네요.

@sungsooh: There is no doubt that it is highly irresponsible for Cho, a high-profile government official, to make such remarks. And considering how he acted later, we can conclude his remarks were made with malicious intent. Following the libel/defamation laws, he is obviously guilty of the charges, but I cant agree on the punishment of arresting someone for defamation.

User @naticle acknowledges this concern, but added [ko]:

@naticle: [...]그러나 조현오씨의 경우에는 적용되기 힘든 것이 죽은 사람은 반론할 기회가 없는데 주장을 거듭했어요

@naticle: [...] However, this logic cannot be easily applied to Cho's case, who repeatedly made these (false) claims, while the dead person is unable defend himself.

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