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Court rejects motion to remove safety minister
Ruling clears safety minister's accountability in deadly Halloween crowd crush disasterBy Son Ji-hyoung
Published : July 25, 2023 - 15:42
South Korea's Constitutional Court on Tuesday dismissed a motion to impeach Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min in a unanimous 9-0 ruling, clearing Lee of his liability for a crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon district that killed 159 in October last year.
In their verdict, court justices cleared Lee of charges in the motion, which claimed Lee neglected his duty of taking preventative measures, and violated the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety by failing to establish a safety countermeasure headquarters immediately after the incident.
The court also denied that Lee had breached any constitutionally guaranteed right to safety.
The court acknowledged that while his public comments in the wake of the disaster on denying its preventability could be deemed an inadequate performance of duties, they could not be seen as a basis for impeachment.
Lee was absent at the verdict. Had the court accepted the motion, he would have been the first Cabinet member to be impeached.
Following the ruling, a work suspension imposed on Lee was lifted Tuesday. This allowed his immediate return to the positions of Interior and Safety Minister and chief of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters. Among the pressing tasks on his agenda is responding to the fallout from the torrential monsoon rain this month that left about 50 people dead or missing.
Lee inspected Cheongyang County, South Chungcheong Province, one of the areas ravaged by the downpour earlier in July, after his return Tuesday afternoon.
"The court decision could bring the political fighting over (the Itaewon crowd crush disaster) to a halt, and we should pull ourselves together not to repeat the tragedy like (the crowd crush)," he said in a statement after the ruling. Lee also vowed a fundamental change in the disaster management and response system.
In Korea, at least six out of nine justices of the Constitutional Court need to approve the impeachment motion to remove a public official from his or her seat. The Constitutional Court here has the power to dismiss high-ranking public officials, including the president, if it is difficult for these figures to be disciplined under conventional administrative or legal procedures.
The ruling drew intense opposition from the bereaved families of Itaewon crowd crush disaster.
"The country just turned a blind eye on 159 citizens," Lee Jeong-min, one of the bereaved family members, said after the verdict.
"Those with administrative power are now granted immunity so they won't bear any responsibilities in case of any wrongdoings. Instead, those at the working level will be held responsible."
"The legal system in Korea is dead," said Choi Sun-mi, another bereaved family member. "Now, our young spirits are living in the world where it is no longer safe just to walk around."
A scuffle ensued between the families and conservative protesters outside the court in Seoul. The protesters, urging the court to reject the motion, also related the Itaewon tragedy to North Korea. Two people in the bereaved family group were sent to the hospital.
Lee is the first safety minister under the conservative Yoon Suk Yeol administration. A judge-turned-attorney, Lee worked as an election campaign staff for the then-presidential candidate Yoon, before he started his term as safety minister in May 2022. Yoon's office told Yonhap News Agency the controlling main opposition Democratic Party of Korea was abusing its legislative power when it passed the impeachment motion.
The court verdict came after the National Assembly passed a motion to impeach Lee on Feb. 8, immediately suspending him from his position. Lee was the first Cabinet member in history to lose his authority through an impeachment motion.
Passed by the liberal opposition Democratic Party, which has a majority in parliament, the motion was submitted to the Constitutional Court the following day. Trials took place from May to June over four courtroom sessions.
The parliament, a claimant in the trial, argued that Lee failed to fulfill his duty as a safety minister in taking adequate measures before and after the Itaewon disaster, and to maintain his dignity as a Cabinet member.
During an emergency briefing after the deadly incident in October, Lee denied accountability, insisting that the "level of crowds expected during the Halloween weekend was not extraordinarily concerning." He added that the "additional dispatch of police officers and firefighters would not have prevented the incident from happening," justifying the ministry's dispatch of police officers to manage protesters across Seoul earlier on the day of the incident.
In addition, bereaved families have long claimed that the removal of Lee from office is the "first step to making the country a safe place."
They argued that Lee was the top decision-maker who neglected the police forecast of a 100,000-strong crowd flocking to the area. They also claimed that Lee failed to exercise his power to dispatch officers in the back alleys of Itaewon to manage the crowd.
This was in contrast with the result of a special police probe on the Itaewon disaster that ended in January. Police investigators held 23 officials -- mostly district-level police officers, fire service personnel and public servants -- accountable for failing to take preventive measures to control the crowd flow.
Such failures are construed as crimes of professional negligence under the Criminal Act of Korea, and those breaching the rule may face up to one-year imprisonment or three-year suspension.
The police concluded that Interior Minister Lee, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon and police chief Yoon Hee-keun were not responsible for the horrifying incident. It said there was no clear ground to establish their legal accountability beyond the district's authorities under the Framework Act on the Management of Disasters and Safety.
As the Halloween crowd crush took place in the single district of Yongsan-gu, neither Seoul City nor the country was obligated to form a response under the law, according to the police.
Lee's legal representatives claimed that the court decision to impeach Lee would go against the "rule of law" principle.
"The impeachment process would no longer touch on officials' legal accountability, but their political accountability," defendants said during the trial.
After the ruling, Democratic Party Rep. Jin Sun-mee urged Lee to step down, and called for a prompt passage of a special act to seek criminal punishment on those responsible for the Itaewon crowd crush and extend support to the bereaved families.
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