South Korean police clamp down on protests against US beef

Monday, June 30, 2008

South Korean authorities are refusing to allow more protests against the government’s decision to allow beef imports from the United States, after hundreds of people were injured in clashes with riot police overnight Saturday.

Around 300 police buses blocked protesters from entering the plaza in front of Seoul City Hall on Sunday, where a candlelight vigil was scheduled for that night. Any rally held after sunset without police permission is considered illegal. Nevertheless, the daily vigils have continued for weeks, with as many as 80,000 in attendance.

After the plaza was sealed off, a group of about 1,700 protesters gathered in nearby streets, chanting slogans that urged President Lee Myung-Bak to cancel his decision allowing U.S. beef imports. Around 70 people were detained by police for illegally occupying roads, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported, but no major clashes occurred.

Over 200 protesters and police officers were injured in Saturday’s protests. The demonstration turned violent when some protesters tried to drag away police buses used to prevent entry into Cheongwadae, the President’s house. Riot police responded by spraying water cannons and fire extinguishers at the protesters, who threw stones, water bottles and eggs at police.

The candle-lit vigils, which were initially peaceful, have mutated into violent protests organized by a small faction.

Government officials said they would not tolerate violent, illegal demonstrations. “The candle-lit vigils, which were initially peaceful, have mutated into violent protests organized by a small faction,” said Justice Minister Kim Kyung Han. He vowed to “chase those who instigate violent protests” and “bring them to justice”. Kim warned that the government might begin using water laced with tear gas against protesters, even though tear gas has been banned since 1999.

In April, President Lee Myung-Bak agreed to resume the importing of U.S. beef, which was banned in 2003 after the United States discovered its first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. Lee has faced a major backlash from this decision, amid fears of the possible spread of this sometimes fatal disease. He was forced to publicly apologize, and all but one of his top advisers were fired.

Jang Dae-hyun, a spokesman for the protesters, suggested that the police should stop using harsh tactics against protesters, which he says would lead to less violence. “We’ve been supporting peaceful rallies, but the police crackdown is too harsh,” Jang said. One protester, Kim In-seok, stated, “We are just here to express our opinions. I can’t understand why this government tries to ban our rally.”

On Monday, police raided the offices of two civic groups that have led the rallies. Documents, computers, pickets, flags, and other materials relating to the demonstrations were confiscated, and the leader of the group AntiMadCow was arrested on charges of staging illegal rallies, Yonhap reported.

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