To Be or Not To Be - Fate of Capital Punishment Hangs in the Balance

    November 22, 2004 20:58

    A bill to abolish capital punishment was presented to the National Assembly on Monday by Uri Party Rep. Yoo In-tae, who presented the document with the signed support of 151 colleagues, or half of all registered lawmakers, in what could be a critical juncture for the age-old dispute over the moral validity of handing down the death sentence.

    In the National Assembly, a seminar on the abrogation of capital punishment was held with Uri Party Chairman Lee Bu-young and a number of religious figures in attendance. Ruling Uri Party representatives have tried to put an end to the death penalty since July, but the case of serial killer Yoo Young-chul whipped up a public storm and put the brakes on their campaign. The debate over the issue only recently resurfaced.

    Religious leaders cut the ropes of a noose during a performance, as part of their protest rally against the death penalty Monday.


    The submitted bill aims at replacing capital punishment with a life sentence without parole or commutation. A total of 103 crimes stipulated in the criminal code or other special laws are currently subject to the death penalty. If the bill is passed, however, life imprisonment will be imposed instead of capital punishment regardless of whether each individual law is revised.

    This is not the first time that a motion to abolish the death penalty has been submitted to the National Assembly. A similar bill was presented to the 15th National Assembly in 1999 under the leadership of Rep. Yoo Jae-kun, while in 2001 a motion was submitted to the 16th National Assembly that bore the approval of 155 lawmakers, a slight majority at the time.

    The two attempts to lay the death penalty to rest were frustrated by the National Assembly’s judiciary committee and were automatically scrapped before being presented to the parliamentary standing committee.

    However, at the 17th National Assembly the abolitionists seem to have wrestled back the upper hand. It is highly possible that the National Assembly’s judiciary committee will refrain from blocking the bill's passage because the ruling party’s committee members are mostly former members of a pro-democratic gathering of lawyers called “Lawyers for a Democratic Society,” which supports reform.

    According to a survey of 15 parliamentary members of the judiciary committee conducted by the Chosun Ilbo on Monday, 10 lawmakers supported the abolition of capital punishment, while five legislators argued to retain the penalty. Among eight committee members from the Uri Party, Rep. Yang Seung-jo was the only one who opposed canceling the death sentence. Of the six committee members from the opposition Grand National Party (GNP), Rep. Joo Seong-young and Joo Ho-young supported the abrogation of the death penalty. Democratic Labor Party Rep. Roh Hoi-chan also endorsed its abolition.

    It is likely that the ruling and opposition parties will put the issue to a cross vote if the bill is submitted to the plenary session of the National Assembly. If so, the bill stands a high chance of successfully passing through the National Assembly, as 151 lawmakers have already signed the motion. The leadership of the ruling Uri Party is also leaning toward replacing the death penalty with a more humane alternative, and its floor leader Chun Jung-bae was one of the bill's signatories.

    Uri Party Chairman Lee Bu-young said at the seminar on Monday that some judiciary committee members who had served as prosecutors had blocked the passage of the death penalty abolishment motion in the 16th National Assembly and he would try to prevent a similar case from occurring. Meanwhile, twenty-one GNP lawmakers signed the bill to abrogate the death penalty and religious circles are lobbying harder than ever to revise the penal code.

    One Uri Party legislator and former lawyer cast doubts on the new law, predicting that the passing away of the death penalty would only be accepted if supplementary measures to deal with more serious crimes were devised. Public opinion favored retaining the death penalty, argued the lawmaker.

    (Lee Myoung-jin, mjlee@chosun.com)
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