UN envoy urges probe of South Korean 'water cannon death'

South Korean farmer demonstrating with banners reading "President Park Geun Hye Resignation" during a rally against the government's agricultural policy in Seoul on Sept 22, 2016.
South Korean farmer demonstrating with banners reading "President Park Geun Hye Resignation" during a rally against the government's agricultural policy in Seoul on Sept 22, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - A United Nations rights envoy has called for an independent investigation into the death of a South Korean protester who was hit by a police water cannon during an anti-government rally last year.

Baek Nam Ki, a 69-year-old farmer, died Sunday (Sept 25) after falling into a coma last November when he was knocked down by a water cannon during a massive protest against Seoul's labour policies.

His plight has sparked widespread outrage with the police coming under fire for what critics describe as excessive use of force during public rallies.

UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai expressed "dismay" over Baek's death in a statement published late Wednesday, calling for a probe to punish those responsible.

"I call for a full and independent investigation into the police's use of water cannon during the rally ... that unambiguously led to (his) death according to video footage available," Kiai said.

"The perpetrators should be held accountable and the family of Mr. Baek receive appropriate compensation; in addition, adequate measures must be taken to prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future," he said.

The protests on Nov 14 - involving more than 60,000 people - led to violent clashes with police, who sprayed water cannon and pepper spray at demonstrators, injuring dozens.

Baek's family and the police have been locked in a dispute with officials pushing for an autopsy to determine cause of death.

Family members have refused, accusing the police of trying to shrug off responsibility and build the case that Baek's death occurred due to diseases he previously suffered.

"The police already has his full medical records for (the) past 10 months ... and we don't want his body to be touched by the police that killed him in the first place," the family said in a statement.

Police and prosecutors Wednesday received a court warrant allowing them to carry out an autopsy, but family members and hundreds of supporters are staking out the hospital in Seoul to block any attempts to take the body.

Rights group Amnesty International accused the authorities of dragging their feet to find and punish those responsible.

"Amnesty International is alarmed at how little progress has been made on this case 10 months after the protest," said its East Asia director Nicholas Bequelin.

"To date, not a single officer involved in the case has faced consequences for their actions," he said in a statement.

Critics say freedoms have been eroded under President Park Geun Hye, daughter of Park Chung Hee, a general turned authoritarian leader who ruled the country for 18 years until he was assassinated in 1979.

Kiai earlier voiced concern at a "gradual regression" on rights in South Korea, noting violent police tactics against protesters including the use of water cannon.

Police sprayed more than 280 tonnes of water at public rallies in 2015, up from 48.5 tonnes the previous year, according to Amnesty.