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Probe launched over inmate’s death following ill-treatment allegations

Family of dead man seeks answers, accuses detention center of rights violations


Authorities are investigating the death of a 38-year-old man at a detention center in Busan on May 10 after his family filed a complaint with the state human rights watchdog. The family says the man had a panic disorder and should have received special accommodation.

In a press release Friday, the Ministry of Justice said officials had determined that the case warranted a formal inspection. “Justice officials are interviewing witnesses and reviewing closed-circuit camera recordings of the incident to see if any violation or foul play had taken place,” the release said.

According to the ministry, the deceased was admitted to the Busan Detention Center at around 11 p.m. on May 8 after he failed to pay a 5 million won ($4,030) fine. After showing “signs of extreme anxiety,” he was taken to the emergency room of a nearby hospital May 10 at around 7 a.m., where he was pronounced dead about half an hour later. Posthumous testing revealed he was coronavirus-negative.

His family accuses the detention center of poor treatment and neglect which ignored his mental health issues.

After receiving the petition, the National Human Rights Commission’s office in Busan said Thursday it would look into instances of possible infringements of the inmate’s rights within the detention center.

The doctor’s note submitted by the family shows he was diagnosed with an “unspecified sleep disorder,” supplemented by comments that read, “The patient is prescribed sleeping pills. He has been advised to consult a psychiatrist for symptoms of panic disorder.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Koo Ja-hyun of a mental health center in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, said the detainee likely suffered from other health issues, as it is “very rare” that panic disorder alone would result in death.

“Panic attacks can lead to symptoms such as hyperventilation that are similar to those of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), or asthma, which is why patients suspected of the disorder are recommended to get a physical examination first,” he said.

Attorney Suh Chae-wan of Lawyers for a Democratic Society, often known by the Korean acronym Minbyun, said detaining individuals in a manner that fails to accommodate their unique health needs can be cause for legal liability.

“If the administrative agency is shown to have been aware of the late detainee’s health conditions, but failed to incorporate those considerations into their treatments, it can be held responsible,” he said.

By Kim Arin (