Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 1 News List

South Korea to block demonstrations


The South Korean government said yesterday it will ban the street rallies that have drawn thousands of people to either protest or support the unprecedented impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun.

Citizens protesting the impeachment have rallied almost daily in downtown Seoul, holding candles and chanting, "Impeachment invalid!" Last weekend, pro-impeachment activists staged rival rallies.

Police consider the peaceful candlelight rallies illegal, but have not tried to disperse them, fearing possible violent clashes that would escalate political uncertainty in the wake of the National Assembly's unpopular March 12 impeachment vote.

The government said it will use police to prevent people from gathering for such rallies beginning today, when the official election campaign starts for April 15 National Assembly polls.

"Until now, the government has focused on keeping candlelight rallies peaceful, but it plans to block such gatherings because they could affect the election," government spokesman Jung Soon-kyun said.

The National Election Commission asked the government on Wednesday to ban pro- and anti-impeachment rallies. By law, all rallies that could affect election results are banned during the campaign period, except speeches by candidates.

The People's Coalition for Participatory Democracy, a major civic group opposing the impeachment, issued a statement accusing the election watchdog of misapplying the law against its rallies. But it did not say whether it will call another large rally this weekend.

Last Saturday, more than 100,000 people staged a sit-in in central Seoul to protest the impeachment.

On Sunday, 2,000 impeachment supporters also staged a sit-in in the capital's center.

The National Assembly impeached Roh for alleged election law violations and incompetence. Prime Minister Goh Kun has assumed Roh's duties while the Constitutional Court decides within 180 days whether to permanently unseat the president or reinstate his powers.

The Constitutional Court began unprecedented legal deliberations yesterday over whether to unseat Roh.

It was the second closed-door meeting of the nine-member court since the opposition-controlled assembly voted to impeach Roh, suspending his presidential powers. But justices discussed legal points in the case for the first time.

"Until now, we have discussed procedural matters. Today we will actually start deliberating on the case itself," judge Choo Sun-hoe told reporters before entering the courthouse.

After the session ended, Choo said the judges "discussed various issues." He refused to give details.

The case is the country's first-ever presidential impeachment trial, and Choo said the judges were also reviewing instances in which heads of state have been impeached overseas.

Last week, the court summoned Roh to attend the first public hearing scheduled for next Tuesday. But the embattled leader has refused to testify in his own defense.

Despite Roh's refusal, the court said yesterday that court regulations require it to convene a public hearing on Tuesday as scheduled to see if Roh attends. If he does not show up, the court will immediately adjourn after announcing a new date for the next hearing.

The new hearing will proceed regardless of Roh's attendance, court spokesman Chun Sang-bo said.

The court has a maximum of six months to decide whether to unseat the suspended president or dismiss the parliamentary impeachment and restore Roh's presidential powers.

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