58 conscientious objectors to be released from prison simultaneously

Posted on : 2018-11-27 16:46 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
13 still remain behind bars from refusing mandatory military service on religious grounds
Members of Amnesty International hold a press conference on May 15
Members of Amnesty International hold a press conference on May 15

Fifty-eight South Koreans who had been imprisoned for conscientious objection to mandatory military service based on religious grounds will be simultaneously released. Thirteen conscientious objectors will still remain behind bars.

During a meeting on Nov. 26, the South Korean Ministry of Justice’s parole review board decided that 58 conscientious objectors who had been given prison sentences and already served at least six months of their prison terms would be released on parole. After reviewing the investigation, trial and incarceration records of 63 conscientious objectors who satisfied the minimum requirements for parole according to the criminal code (having completed one third of their sentence), the parole review board decided that 58 of them would be put on parole on Nov. 30, on the condition that they perform community service.

“We made the decision about parole based on whether the inmates conformed to the standard of ‘sincere conviction’ demanded by the full bench of the Supreme Court. We deferred parole for five individuals because it was unclear whether they conformed to the Supreme Court’s standard,” an official from the Justice Ministry said.

On Nov. 1, the full bench of the Supreme Court acquitted a conscientious objector for the first time in South Korean history. The court argued that compelling the performance of military duty by criminally prosecuting conscientious objection could threaten fundamental rights such as the freedom of conscience and found that objection to military service based on sincere conviction counted as one of the legitimate exemptions to prosecution according to the Military Service Act.

Conscientious objectors have been sentenced to one year and six months in prison, but the Ministry of Justice has had them assist in administrative work as correctional staff at jails instead of sending them to prison. In short, conscientious objectors have basically already been performing the alternative service at prisons that the Ministry of Defense has recently been reviewing. In most case, they have been released on parole after completing 80% (1 years and 2 months) of their prison terms.

As of Nov. 1, there were 71 conscientious objectors in prison. Releasing 58 of these individuals would leave just 13 behind bars. As the government adjusts to the rulings of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, there has been a steady reduction in the number of prison sentences given to conscientious objectors since last year. After the Constitutional Court ruled this past June that it was unconstitutional for the Military Service Act not to provide an alternative service option, the Military Manpower Administration began delaying the enlistment of conscientious objectors. This has led to the end of the administration asking prosecutors to investigate and indict conscientious objectors for violating the Military Service Act. Most of the eight who remain in prison (alongside the five whose parole has been deferred) are also likely to be released when they become eligible for parole. If this trend continues, the incarceration of conscientious objectors is expected to soon fade into the pages of history.

While 69 of the 71 imprisoned conscientious objectors are Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Justice Ministry deferred its parole ruling for some of the them, citing doubts about the sincerity of their convictions. This is expected to provoke controversy, since the Justice Ministry and the prosecutors have been slower to change than the Military Manpower Administration, which has delayed its enlistment of conscientious objectors and stopped making their identities public. The prosecutors have appealed two acquittals of conscientious objectors even after the Supreme Court’s ruling on the grounds that the sincerity of their convictions should be reexamined in light of Supreme Court precedent.

On a related topic, the question of how to restore the rights of conscientious objectors who have already completed their prison terms remains to be addressed. There are also many individuals whose freedom to choose an occupation is being infringed, such as Baek Jong-geon, whose application to be relicensed as an attorney has been denied because five years have not passed since his sentencing. This is leading some to call on the president to issue a special pardon.

By Kim Min-kyoung, staff reporter

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