SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's top prosecutor apologised Tuesday (Aug 8) over human rights abuses under past "authoritarian governments", including the torture and execution of pro-democracy activists.
The country was a military dictatorship for much of its existence, only embracing democracy in the 1980s.
The powerful legal service has been criticised for decades for prosecuting political dissent or turning a blind eye to state abuses, particularly against dissidents and pro-democracy activists during army-backed rule.
"I offer my deepest apology to the people of South Korea," said Moon Moo Il, who took office as prosecutor-general last month.
"I regret that the prosecution did not fulfill its duty to adhere to legal procedures and protect human rights in some of the past political cases under authoritarian governments," he said in the first such apology by a chief prosecutor.
Moon cited prosecutions of democracy activists in the 1960s and 70s for supposedly forming a secret, pro-North Korea group to overthrow the South's government under then-dictator Park Chung Hee.
The case drew widespread criticism over the use of torture and lack of evidence, but eight activists were eventually sentenced to death in 1975 and executed the next day.
All eight - and dozens of others who were given hefty jail terms - were exonerated from 2007 onwards by a Seoul court which found that they had been tortured.
"I plan to convey my message of apology to those who were convicted and their families," Moon said, adding he would make the legal service "transparent" to ensure its "political neutrality".
Overhauling the prosecutors' office has been a key policy priority for South Korea's new liberal President Moon Jae In, who took office in May after the ouster of impeached former leader Park Geun Hye.
President Moon, a former human rights lawyer, has vowed to hold responsible prosecutors who "align themselves with political powers to seek personal gain".
South Korean prosecutors most recently came under fire for allegedly dragging their feet in launching a probe into the corruption scandal that eventually brought down former president Park.
Park and her secret confidante Choi Soon Sil were eventually arrested and charged with offences including abuse of power and bribery by a special team of independent prosecutors appointed by lawmakers. The pair are currently on trial.
A government survey carried out while Park was in office and released earlier this year showed that 73 percent of South Koreans do not trust prosecutors, with 65 percent describing their conduct as unfair.