Ex-South Korean strongman on trial for libel

Former president Chun Doo-hwan at the Gwangju District Court yesterday for a libel trial. He has denied defaming the late priest Cho Chul-hyun.
Former president Chun Doo-hwan at the Gwangju District Court yesterday for a libel trial. He has denied defaming the late priest Cho Chul-hyun.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL • Former South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan has denied libel charges against him, appearing before a Gwangju court in a libel trial over his 2017 memoir, 22 years after he was pardoned from a life sentence for his role in the crackdown on the May 18 democratic uprising.

Chun, 88, who came to power in a military coup in 1979 following the assassination of president Park Chung-hee, stands accused of defaming the late activist priest Cho Chul-hyun.

Mr Cho said he witnessed the military shooting at civilians from helicopters during the bloody crackdown in Gwangju in May 1980, which Chun flatly denied.

In his memoir published in early 2017, Chun referred to Mr Cho as "Satan wearing a mask" and a "liar".

Mr Cho Young-dae, a Catholic priest and the deceased's nephew, filed a complaint against Chun, who was indicted in May last year.

Asked by media yesterday whether he denies firing at pro-democracy protesters, Chun shot back: "What do you think you are doing?"

Asked whether he was willing to apologise to the people of Gwangju, he did not respond.

The main point of contention in court yesterday is whether there was firing at civilians from military helicopters during the crackdown and whether Chun intended to defame the priest in his memoir. If convicted, he could face up to two years in prison or five million won (S$6,000) in fines.

Chun is reported to have denied any wrongdoings during the hour-long hearing, saying he wrote the memoir based on state records and the firing from the helicopters has not yet been proven to be true.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that the shooting from the helicopters is backed by solid evidence such as investigations and court records, as well as witness testimonies.

The Gwangju District Court issued a subpoena for Chun after he repeatedly refused to attend the court hearing. He cited Alzheimer's disease and influenza for his absence, with his lawyer saying he had no intention of avoiding the proceedings.

The next hearing is scheduled for April 8.

On May 18, 1980, the brutal crackdown on student-led demonstrations against the military dictatorship left an estimated 600 civilians dead in what has also been called the "Gwangju Massacre".

Chun ruled the country until 1988 after seizing power in a 1979 coup. He was sentenced in 1996 to death for sedition and bribery, which was later reduced to life imprisonment. He was released from custody in 1997 on a presidential pardon.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2019, with the headline 'Ex-South Korean strongman on trial for libel'. Print Edition | Subscribe