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(LEAD) Police chief vows to go tough with 'illegal' protesters

2015/11/16 18:18

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with comment from national police chief; ADDS police estimate on number of protesters)

SEOUL, Nov. 16 (Yonhap) -- The nation's police chief Monday pledged to deal sternly with those who led the violent rally in downtown Seoul the past weekend against the government's plan to adopt state history textbooks and labor reform measures, defining it as "illegal."

   On Saturday, around 130,000 demonstrators from 53 labor unions and civic organizations took to the streets, according to the protest organizers. The police said the number remained at about 68,000.

By the number of participants, it was the largest protest rally in the country since 2008, when massive demonstrations were staged in protest against the then Lee Myung-bak government's resumption of U.S. beef imports.

As the rally continued late into the night, it turned more violent with protesters brandishing metal pipes and police firing water cannons at the protesters.

"We will hold those who orchestrated the illegal rally and those who committed violence responsible and file a suit seeking compensation for the damages incurred," Kang Sin-myeong, the National Police Agency commissioner, said during a video conference of regional police chiefs across the country.

He expressed sadness over an elderly farmer who was in critical condition after being knocked down by a police water cannon during the rally but said the man should not be used by other protesters to justify their "illegal" acts.

"I feel sorry about the farmer who got injured in the process of quelling the rally," Kang said. "Still, he should not become a means to justify illegal violent protests. Legitimate and fair exercise of government power should be protected."

   South Korea's ruling and opposition parties showed mixed reactions over the rally, respectively pointing fingers at protesters and police for the violence.

The ruling Saenuri Party defined the protest as an "illegal political rally" and called for harsh punishments against those who led the protest.

"Those 'protest experts' who aim to fling the society into confusion made Gwanghwamun, the heart of the country, into a lawless zone," Chairman Kim Moo-sung said, calling for strict reactions from related authorities.

"The courts should feel responsible for letting illegal rallies continue by handing down soft punishments to the defendants," Kim added.

Criticizing the violence during the demonstration, Rep. Suh Chung-won of the ruling party said illegal rallies with iron pipes and torches should be eradicated by the Park Geun-hye administration.

The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) denounced the excessive use of force by the police, calling it a "deadly suppression" of citizens.

During the crackdown, some 182,000 liters of water were used, which is about 45.5 times more than the amount used by the police in similar situations last year, according to Rep. Jung Chung-rai of the NPAD.

The violent demonstration caused 29 protesters to be rushed to hospitals after sustaining injuries, according to reports.

Among the injured was a 69-year-old farmer, surnamed Baek, who suffered a brain hemorrhage after being knocked down by a police water cannon.

He was taken to Seoul National University Hospital and underwent surgery but remains in critical condition.

Some police officers also sustained injuries although the exact number is not available.

Rep. Joo Seung-yong of the NPAD also noted the illegality of using police vehicles to create barricades during a street rally, making it difficult for citizens to pass through the area.

In 2011, the Constitutional Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for the police to surround Seoul Plaza with riot buses because it violates the citizens' right to freedom of movement.

"The government should listen to the outcry from the citizens over youth unemployment, labor reform and the plunge in agriculture prices," NPAD Chairman Moon Jae-in said.

A total of 51 demonstrators were rounded up in the one-day rally, with 49 of them booked for police investigation, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.

Nine police buses, parked in the protest area to block the flow of demonstrators, were destroyed as protesters attacked the barricade of buses with ropes and clubs.

Protesters scuffle with police during a rally in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Nov. 14, 2015, to protest the government's plan on state-authored history textbooks for secondary students and labor reform. (Yonhap) Protesters scuffle with police during a rally in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Nov. 14, 2015, to protest the government's plan on state-authored history textbooks for secondary students and labor reform. (Yonhap)

scaaet@yna.co.kr

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