Court rejects request for change of judge in case over N. Korean defectors
SEOUL, July 22 (Yonhap) -- A Seoul court spurned a request by progressive lawyers to replace a judge in a controversial case that involves more than a dozen North Korean defectors, court officials said Friday.
The ruling by the Seoul Central District Court came a month after the lawyers made the request, citing alleged unfairness of a court hearing on the legality of Seoul's protection of the defectors.
A group of 12 North Korean waitresses and their male manager have been under the protection of the South Korean government since early April when they fled a North Korea-run restaurant in China's eastern port city of Ningbo and defected to Seoul.
South Korea said the defectors came to Seoul on their own free will, but North Korea has called for their immediate repatriation, claiming that they were "lured and abducted" by the South Korean government.
The court said Friday that it is difficult to say that last month’s hearing was unfair or that there is concern of an unfair hearing in the future.
The lawyers can appeal the ruling. The hearing can be resumed if the lawyers do not appeal the ruling.
The lawyers had asked the court to decide on the legality of Seoul's protection of the defectors to address controversy over whether they came to South Korea of their own free will.
The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s spy agency, rejected the lawyers’ request to meet with the restaurant workers to clarify the North's claims.