South Korea
Urgent Interventions

Unprecedented 8-year prison sentence sought against Mr. Sang-gyun Han

​New Information
KOR 002 / 1215 / OBS 108.2

Arbitrary detention / Judicial harassment /
Obstacles to freedom of assembly
South Korea
June 15, 2016

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), has received new information and requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in South Korea.

New information:

The Observatory has been informed by reliable sources about an unprecedented 8-year prison sentence sought against jailed KCTU[1] President Mr. Sang-gyun Han.

According to the information received, on June 13, 2016, the prosecution sought a sentence of 8 years in prison for Mr. Han for charges related to his participation in demonstrations that took place between April and November 2015. Such a long prison term is unheard of for charges linked to the organisation of an “illegal rally”. The prosecution justified the harsh sentence stating that Mr. Han's refusal to turn himself in to the police when a warrant was issued for his arrest in June 2015 (see background information) was a “major crime which could destroy the basis of rule of law” due to the influence he holds as the leader of KCTU.

In addition to the arbitrary detention and ongoing judicial harassment of Mr. Han, Ms. Young-Joo Lee, Secretary General of KCTU, is still under self-imposed house arrest at the KCTU headquarters in Seoul in order to avoid being arbitrarily detained by the police. Ms. Lee has been in hiding since December 2015 when the authorities issued a warrant for her arrest for participating in the demonstrations in 2015.

Parallel to the judicial harassment of union leaders and labour activists for simply exercising their right to free assembly, the violent and disproportionate repression of peaceful demonstrators by police in South Korea continues totally unaddressed. Prior to the rally on November 14, 2015, the police mobilised some 20,000 officers from 248 squadrons, 19 water cannons, 679 buses, and 580 capsicum spray devices. The police took pre-emptive and aggressive measures against the demonstrators, firing water cannons and tear gas directly at peaceful marchers. Dozens of people were injured, including a farmer named Baek Nam-gi, who was struck by the jet of a water cannon and remains unconscious 7 months later. To this day, police have neither issued an apology nor opened an investigation into the violent actions of the police. However, reports indicate 1,531 civilians were investigated in relation to the violent clashes, and 538 KCTU members were summoned as suspects. Among them, 20 were detained and indicted. As of May 2016, 13 have been released on bail or suspended sentences, and the remaining seven, including Mr. Han, are still in custody awaiting the outcome of their trials.

The Observatory strongly condemns the ongoing repression, intimidation, and judicial harassment of labour leaders in South Korea, and in particular the trumped-up charges against Mr. Han and the warrant against Ms. Lee, that seem only aimed at deterring the peaceful human rights activities and freedom of assembly of labour unions and workers' rights organisations.

Finally, the Observatory is concerned by the ongoing attempts by the South Korean authorities to curtail freedom of association, assembly, and expression, which seem to be aimed at undermining the legitimate activities of human rights defenders. The Observatory recalls that the South Korean authorities have the responsibility to ensure the protection of human rights in general and of rights related to freedoms of expression, assembly and association in particular.

Background information:

On June 23, 2015, an arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Han for his participation in demonstrations that took place in April and May 2015 in solidarity with the victims of the sinking of the Sewol Ferry in 2014. After these demonstrations in April and May, Mr. Han had been summoned by the police for questioning, but refused to appear for fear that he would be arbitrarily arrested. When an arrest warrant was issued in June 2015, he went into hiding in the KCTU offices for about five months, and later sought refuge at the Jogye Buddhist Temple in Seoul city centre for almost one month. On December 10, 2015, he was finally arrested while leaving the temple after the police had surrounded it and attempted to forcibly enter the building.

Mr. Han began a hunger strike on November 30, 2015, in protest against the illegitimate arrest warrant issued against him and the proposed labour reforms that would further limit workers' rights. He continued the hunger strike while in detention, but after his health deteriorated significantly he ended his hunger strike in early January 2016. In addition, on December 16, 2015, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation for Asia and the Pacific (ITUC-AP) was denied the right to visit Mr. Han at the police station. Police stated that the visit was refused due to “worries about the possibility of conspiracy and destruction of evidence.”

On January 5, 2016, Mr. Han was indicted with 8 types of charges in relation to his participation in demonstrations that took place between April and November 2015.[2] On May 24, 2016, Mr. Han faced his third hearing in the trial for these charges..

Actions requested:

The Observatory urges the authorities of South Korea to:
i. Guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of Mr. Sang-gyun Han, Ms. Young-joo Lee, and all KCTU members, as well as all peaceful protesters and human rights defenders in South Korea;

ii. Immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Sang-gyun Han and all KCTU members, as well as all peaceful protesters and human rights defenders in South Korea;

iii. Put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against Mr. Sang-gyun Han, Ms. Young-joo Lee, and all KCTU members, as well as all peaceful protesters and human rights defenders in South Korea;

iv. Ensure in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in South Korea are able to carry out their legitimate activities including the organisation of strikes and peaceful assemblies without any hindrance or fear of reprisals;

v. Conform with the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted on December 9, 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly, in particular:

· its Article 1, which states that “everyone has the right, individually or in association with others, to promote the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels” ;
· its Article 5 (a) which states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others to meet or assemble peacefully” ; and
· its Article 12 which states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.”

vi. Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by South Korea.

· Mrs. Park Geun-hye, President of the Republic of Korea, 1 Cheongwadae-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul 110-820, Republic of Korea, Fax: +82 2770 1690
· Mr. Hwang Kyo-ahn, Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea, 77-6 Sejongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea. Fax: + 82-2-720-35 71
· Mr. Kim Hyun-Woong, Minister of Justice, Government Complex-Gwacheon, Jungang-dong1, Gwacheon-si, Kyunggi-do, Tel: 02-2110-3178, Fax: 02-503-7118
· Mr. Yun Byung-se, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 60, Sajik-ro 8-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Republic of Korea (110-787) Tel: +82-2-2100-2114, Fax: +82-2-2100-7999
· National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Gumsegi Building, No. 16, Ulgiro 1-ga, Jung-gu, 100-842 Seoul, Republic of Korea. Tel: +82 2 2125 97 00; Fax: +82-2-2125-9718. E-mail:
· H.E. Choi Kyoung-lim, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations, 1 Avenue de l'Ariana, Case Postale 42, 1211 Genève 20, Switzerland, Tel:(41-22) 748-0000, Fax: 748-0003. Email:
· H.E. Chong-ghee Ahn, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the Kingdom of Belgium, Chaussée de la Hulpe 173-175, 1170 Brussels(Watermael-Boitsfort), Belgium, Tel : + 32 (0)2 675 5777, Fax : + 32 (0)2 675 5221/(0)2 662 2305

Please also write to diplomatic representations of South Korea in your respective countries.
Sign up now

Subscribe to our latest news & alerts