[Interview] Retrials to begin for 18 former inmates incarcerated after Jeju Uprising in 1948

Posted on : 2018-10-29 17:56 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
A Seoul attorney on a mission to restore reputations and shed light on dark past
Attorney Im Jae-seong of the Haemaru law firm shares the story of his mission to restore the reputation of 18 former inmates who were incarcerated after the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising of 19489 in his office in Seoul on Oct. 23. (Baek So-ah
Attorney Im Jae-seong of the Haemaru law firm shares the story of his mission to restore the reputation of 18 former inmates who were incarcerated after the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising of 19489 in his office in Seoul on Oct. 23. (Baek So-ah

“Each retrial will begin for the relevant trials” – the phrase appears in the decision to initiate retrials for 18 individuals incarcerated after the Jeju Uprising, that took place on Apr. 3, 1948. After hearing the decision, on Sept. 3, 38-year-old attorney Im Jae-seong was relieved to learn he could keep his promise to the former inmates, who had asked him to help them get a decent trial before they died.

The 18 former inmates who are still alive are just a fraction of the 2,530 individuals who were convicted by military tribunals in Dec. 1948 and July 1949 and sent to prisons around the country. Along with his associate Kim Se-eun from the Haemaru law firm, Im convinced the court to initiate retrials, with the first hearing scheduled for Oct. 29.

When Im sat down with the Hankyoreh at the Haemaru office, in Seoul’s Seocho District, on Oct. 23, he said the retrial had not originally been his number-one priority. “The only document related to the trials was the register of inmates. Given how long it took to retry members of the People's Revolutionary Party because of the lack of records, I figured a retrial of these former inmates would be impractical, given they’re in their 80s and 90s.”

What changed Im’s mind was the determination of the former inmates and the members of the Provincial Coalition for Repairing Reputations and Learning the Truth about the Apr. 3 Jeju Uprising, who were helping the former inmates.

“The important thing isn’t money but restoring reputations, and asking for damages can create misunderstandings,” Im said. The former inmates themselves, who are mostly in their 80s and 90s, wanted a retrial so that they could clear their names before they die. In Apr. 2018, Im filed a request for a retrial for the 18 former inmates at the Jeju district courthouse.

Challenge posed by lack of documents and the power of live witnesses

The biggest challenge for the attorneys was the lack of records. They requested related documents from all relevant government ministries, including the Ministry of Justice, National Police Agency, Ministry of Defense and National Archives of Korea. The only document they had before the trial was a register that listed the names of 2,530 inmates, their sentences and the prisons where they had been incarcerated.

In addition to that, the attorneys managed to get their hands on a military order from the commander of the 2nd Regiment, which was stationed on Jeju at the time of the uprising, to the directors of various prisons ordering them to carry out the sentence, as well as a deposition resulting from a documentary review by army headquarters stating that “the military tribunals were held.”

But the strongest evidence was the former inmates themselves, who were living witnesses of the truth. Over the course of five hearings, all 17 of the former inmates (with the exception of Jeong Gi-seong, who is in a nursing home) stood before the court and testified of their illegal confinement and torture.

“While watching them trembling in the courtroom, I found myself wondering if it was cruel bringing these elderly people, in their eighties and nineties, to the courtroom to be questioned. But I think the process of speaking about the injustice they have suffered and convincing the court to launch a retrial in their own voice was itself a kind of healing,” Im said.

“Is there anything you would like to say before we conclude?” – this is what Im and Kim would ask when they wrapped up courtroom questioning for each of the 17 former inmates. In light of the former inmates’ age and the gravity of the incident, the two attorneys wanted to get as much of their words in writing as possible. One former inmate whose head had been bowed in the courtroom 70 years ago spoke of the wrongs he had suffered and told the court it was not too late to make things right.

This appeal made an impact on the court. “Their testimony was candid and natural, with no sense of embellishment or exaggeration,” wrote Hon. Jegal Chang, presiding judge of the second criminal division at the Jeju District Court, in the decision ordering a retrial.

Kim Gyeong-in, Kim Sun-hwa, Kim Pyeong-guk, Park Nae-eun, Park Dong-su, Park Sun-seok, Bu Won-hyu, Yang Il-hwa, Yang Geun-bang, Oh Gye-chun, Oh Yeong-jong, Oh Hui-chun, Lim Chang-ui, Jeong Gi-seong, Cho Byeong-tae, Han Shin-hwa, Hyeon Woo-ryong and Hyeon Chang-yong – the decision to retry these individuals is the first step toward clearing the names of the Apr. 3 inmates.

The need for special legislation regarding unjust judgments on the deceased

Im emphasized the need to pass a special law. “Considering that the 2,530 inmates suffered similar torture and illegal detention, it isn’t right to leave illegal judgments as they are just because the defendants have passed away. This makes it even more right and necessary to pass a law that can provide a remedy for all the former inmates.”

Im himself spent time in prison as a conscientious objector after refusing to perform his military service. After researching peace studies in graduate school, Im entered law school. Given his interest in the subject of violence, Im has worked with a civic peace tribunal dealing with massacres of civilians during the Vietnam War and the issue of conscientious objection to military service.

By Kim Min-kyoung, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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