Monday, September 22, 2014

Military justice reform in Republic of Korea faces resistance

The Korea Times has this article about proposals for basic changes relating to the Republic of Korea's armed forces. On military justice, the author has this to say:
Currently, the military operates two kinds of courts -- a general military court, the court of first instance or initial trial court, and a high military court, the appeals court.
If a defendant or prosecutor lodges a second appeal following a decision by the high military court, the case then goes to the Supreme Court for a final ruling.
One of the most radical arguments regarding reforming the military's judicial system is a call to remove the military courts in peace time, and operate them only in times of war.
Those who support this idea say that this measure would be a way of strengthening the independence of trials, as it is an outdated practice that only officers should control the entire trial process in the military courts -- beginning from investigation, to indictment, through to the formation of judge panels and, ultimately, the issuance of rulings. 
They claim that judges in civilian courts have sufficient professionalism to make a decision on military-related crimes and that abolishing the military courts is an international trend driven by efforts to guarantee the independence of military trials. Military courts currently don't operate in Japan, Sweden, Austria and Belgium.
As an alternative, some critics are demanding that those who commit a crime not strictly related to military affairs, such as traffic offenses, should be tried in the civilian courts.
However, the Ministry of National Defense is maintaining a negative position against such calls, saying that a considerable number of countries including the United States, China and Russia still operate military courts in peace time.
The military also cited a report produced by the National Assembly Research Service in April of last year that stated, "The time is not yet ripe for abolishing military courts, given the nation's security situation and the military's unique characteristics."
Instead, it is reviewing a measure to include civilian judges when judge panels are appointed, saying that this could be a way of guaranteeing the independence of trials.
Another controversial issue is centered on two conventions of the military courts.
One is that commanding officers are empowered to reduce sentences passed against offenders at their discretion. Critics say that this is one of the main reasons why inadequate punishments are given to soldiers convicted of crimes.
The other is allowing any officer to be appointed as a judge in the general military courts. Critics say this could be in violation of the rights of those accused to get a fair trial by judges.
Senior officers are opposed to these changes: "a considerable number of those in the military's senior ranks believe that touching its judicial system amounts to weakening its roots. Most of them are said to be against such intervention by the civilian judicial system in the military." Recent military leaders' discussions of reform are the first in six years.

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