Published : 2013-02-22 20:41
Updated : 2013-02-22 20:41
It is a universal human rights principle that all people are subject to the same laws of justice, as Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.”
This principle is enshrined in the Korean Constitution as well. Article 11 reads in part: “All citizens are equal before the law, and there may be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life on account of sex, religion, or social status.” It goes without saying that no undue favors must be given to anyone, either, if all citizens are to be truly equal before the law.
But it has not been unusual for politically powerful or wealthy figures to be placed above the law. Few Koreans would have believed that all people were equal before the law when they saw those influential people given a slap on the wrist when they were found to have committed serious crimes.
More often than not, politicians, chaebol owners and other influential figures were given suspended prison sentences for the crimes they had committed. Ordinary people, when found to have committed the same crimes, would have been put behind bars.
But the administration of justice is changing. It is no longer unusual for the court to disqualify lawmakers for breaching the law and put chairmen of business conglomerates, when found guilty, into custody immediately after sentencing them to prison terms.
The latest such case involved a former commissioner of the National Police Agency, Cho Hyun-oh. When he headed the Seoul Police Agency in March 2010, Cho claimed in a lecture to police officers that former President Roh Moo-hyun had huge slush funds in secret bank accounts under the names of his aides.
Quoting an unidentified source, who he said was reliable and privy to secret information, Cho said Roh committed suicide one day after the illegal funds were found in the borrowed-name accounts in 2009. The Roh Moo-hyun Foundation pressed charges against the Seoul police commissioner for defaming the late president.
Earlier in the week, the Seoul Central District Court ruled him guilty and sentenced him to 10 months in prison, which must have shocked the former police chief who might have expected a suspended prison sentence at worst. Even more shocking was the judge’s decision to send him to prison immediately after his ruling, instead of deferring the execution of the sentence until his case was finally closed in a higher court.
The judge apparently wanted to get his message across to both the former police commissioner and society that he could not be treated differently simply because he had been a top law-enforcement officer. He chided him in his ruling for failing to exercise prudence as a “person holding an influential position” and spreading false information at the expense of the family of the late president.
Cho is not the only influential person who has recently been detained upon being sentenced to a prison term. Rep. Chung Doo-un of the ruling Saenuri Party was sent to prison as soon as he was sentenced to a prison term last month for taking hundreds of millions of won from a savings bank in violation of the political funding law. The incumbent lawmaker’s imprisonment came as a surprise to many, including news commentators, who called it an “unusual” court decision.
Two lawmakers were disqualified when the Supreme Court upheld lower courts’ decisions earlier this month. Another 15 lawmakers will also be forced out of the National Assembly if lower-court rulings are upheld by the highest court.
Faring little better are criminally charged business tycoons. Among them is Chey Tae-won, chairman of SK Group, who was sentenced to a four-year prison term last month. In a departure from the practice of treating chaebol leaders with kid gloves, the Seoul Central District Court jailed Chey, as demanded by the prosecution, for embezzling 46.5 billion won from SK affiliates.
The court, along with other courts, broke the mold when it sent Chey to prison, ignoring a long held argument that chaebol leaders deserved leniency for the contribution they had made to the nation’s economic advancement and that their absence could disrupt chaebol management. By doing so, the court helped convince the public that all are equal before the law.