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In Brazil, a grieving mother takes police killings to court

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On the day she was to face her son’s killers, Glaucia dos Santos rose early, smoothed her hair into a ponytail and donned a T-shirt emblazoned with a single word: “Gratitude.”

It may have seemed like a surprising choice given what she was about to do: travel three hours by bus from her home on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to a downtown courthouse, where the two police officers who had gunned down her 17-year-old in 2014 were being tried for murder.

But she felt lucky.

A group of women in a room.

Glaucia dos Santos, second from right, with supporters. Her eight-year battle for a day in court has come amid a surge of killings by police that has made Brazil’s law enforcement agencies among the world’s most lethal.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In Brazil, where even the most egregious abuses by police are rarely punished, trials like this one were practically unheard of. Against all odds, and thanks only to her own dogged detective work, Dos Santos now had a shot at justice.

Her eight-year battle for a day in court had come amid a surge of killings by police that had made Brazil’s law enforcement agencies among the world’s most lethal.

Police killed 6,145 people here last year, according to the nonprofit Brazilian Forum on Public Safety — an average of almost 17 a day and nearly triple the 2013 total.

Taking population size into account, officers killed at roughly nine times the rate of U.S. law enforcement.

People walk along a street.

Most killings by police take place in favelas, former squatter settlements founded by ex-slaves that remain predominantly Black and have few state services and a heavy gang presence.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In Rio de Janeiro state, killings by police accounted for nearly a third of all homicides. Most took place in favelas, former squatter settlements founded by ex-slaves that remain predominantly Black today and have few state services and a heavy gang presence.

The rise in police violence has been celebrated by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pushed for laws that would provide immunity for officers who commit homicide in the line of duty and declared that “a policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”

His challenger in Sunday’s presidential election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has said little about the issue, with some political observers concluding that he is wary of conflict with the police because of the possibility that they could back Bolsonaro in an attempt to steal the election. Still, if Lula, as he is known, becomes president, as polls suggest he will, he will face pressure from segments of his base who have become increasingly vocal about the need for police reform.

Though officers almost always defend their killings as acts of self-defense against armed criminals, human rights groups and journalists have documented a pattern of excessive use of force, including summary executions of people who are unarmed or injured.

A report by the United Nations this year said Brazil’s security strategy demonstrates an “unconscionable disregard for human life,” and highlighted a deep racial disparity. Black people make up 55% of Brazil’s population, but 84% of the people police killed last year.

When Dos Santos, who is Black, lost her only son, Fabricio, she was thrust into a new role in her community. Each time another young man died, his mother would come to her for comfort and advice. As the years wore on, a WhatsApp group of grieving mothers that she had created came to include about a dozen neighbors and even her own sister.

Photos of those killed by police.

At left, photos of people killed by police are displayed at a protest. Glaucia dos Santos, right, attends a protest with other mothers and family members of those killed by police.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

At the courthouse last month, Dos Santos, 46, was accompanied by several of them, each clutching a photograph of their own dead child. For many, Fabricio’s case had become deeply personal because they knew they were unlikely to ever get their own day in court.

Sun streaked through the clouds as the women stood shoulder to shoulder chanting Fabricio’s name and the thing they all wanted: “Justiça.”

“The police are supposed to protect,” Dos Santos told a crowd of people who had stopped to watch the impromptu protest, her voice trembling. “We want you to stop killing us.”

Then she and the rest of the women filed into the courthouse.

Dos Santos knew it was never going to be easy raising a son in the favela.

Her community, Chapadão, is a labyrinth of small homes made of unpainted brick and corrugated tin roofs stretching across hillsides on the far north side of Rio.

Fabricio’s father, a former soldier, left when he was a baby, and his mother worked as a housekeeper. When Fabricio was 3, he was hit by a truck speeding through the neighborhood, leaving him with a permanent limp.

People walk in a neighborhood.

A report by the United Nations this year said Brazil’s security strategy demonstrates an “unconscionable disregard for human life,” and highlighted a deep racial disparity. Black people make up 55% of Brazil’s population, but 84% of the people police killed last year.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

For her shy son, who dreamed of being a mechanical engineer, life’s biggest preoccupation wasn’t the cruel taunts of classmates or even the gangs who peddled drugs in the streets. It was the police.

Officers hassled him at a local arcade and at a bus stop on his way to a job painting houses in Copacabana. Once he was hauled into a police station for riding in a car the police said had been stolen, until they changed their story and let him go.

A woman holds a banner with a photo of her son.

Glaucia dos Santos holds a banner with pictures of her slain son, Fabricio.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

His mother counseled him and his two younger sisters to always keep their cool when police were involved: “Never talk back to them. Don’t let yourself react.”

But Fabricio was terrified of the cops, who had a reputation for brutality in the favelas dating back to the 1970s, when the government launched a war on drugs and started going after the gangs that had formed in Brazil’s prisons and were now entrenched in many poor neighborhoods.

A truck passes people carrying a body.

Police in a Rio de Janeiro favela pass residents carrying the body of a man killed in a police raid.

(Mauro Pimental / AFP via Getty Images)

Guns can be see in a police car.

Police in Brazil killed 6,145 people last year, an average of almost 17 a day and nearly triple the 2013 total.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

There have been short-lived attempts at police reform, including the introduction of community policing units in some favelas in the few years leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Rio.

Though those efforts reduced killings by police for several years, the special units never arrived in Chapadão, and eventually they were abandoned altogether. The killings started to climb again — it was not uncommon for 20 people to die in a single afternoon when police raided their favela.

A finger points at an autopsy report.

Daniel Lozoya, a public defender, displays an autopsy report showing where Fabricio dos Santos was shot in the head by police officers.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

By law, police can use lethal force only to confront an “imminent threat.”

“But in the streets, the law is different,” said Daniel Lozoya, a public defender in Rio de Janeiro. “He’s Black, he’s poor, so the police shoot.”

As dawn broke on Jan. 1, 2014, two police officers sat down with a police investigator to explain how and why they had just killed a young man. It was the protocol any time an officer used lethal force.

The cops, Victor Declie de Souza, who is white and was 31 at the time, and Paulo Renato do Nascimento Pires, who is Black and was 38, said they had been patrolling near Chapadão a little before 3 a.m. when three men on two motorcycles started firing at them.

The police said they chased the assailants about a mile to a gas station, where Declie used a rifle to shoot one driver as the other alleged attackers sped away.

The officers said they found a Glock pistol next to the body of the person they shot, who would later be identified as Fabricio dos Santos. They said he was still alive when they loaded his body into their car to take him to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

Investigators did not visit the crime scene because the neighborhood was “too dangerous,” according to records. No forensic analysis was conducted to show whether Fabricio had ever fired the gun. Police never sought witnesses to interview.

A man sits at a tabe.

Paulo Renato do Nascimento Pires, one of the two police officers facing charges in the killing of Fabricio dos Santos.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The case could have ended there, like the vast majority of incidents in which police kill civilians here.

The attorney general’s office in Rio de Janeiro state said it does not track how many cases are brought against police officers. But multiple independent studies have shown that charges are filed in fewer than 1% of killings by police.

Marfan Martins Vieira, a former attorney general, told human rights investigators that he believes that many of the alleged shootouts between cops and civilians are “simulated” — meaning that only the police fired — but that poor-quality investigations leave prosecutors without enough information to prove it.

Cesar Muñoz, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said prosecutors have the legal authority to investigate police abuse — and must.

“The police are not capable of investigating themselves,” he said.

A woman weeps.

Glaucia dos Santos weeps while talking about her son. “The police are supposed to protect,” she said. “We want you to stop killing us.”

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Dos Santos thought the police were lying. Her son, she told investigators, had never held a gun in his life. And she had seen him head to the gas station alone, after celebrating the new year with his girlfriend. Besides, she and her neighbors hadn’t heard a shootout, just a single shot.

She was three months pregnant and battling morning sickness, but she was determined to get to the truth. “It was the least I could do for him,” she said.

After identifying Fabricio’s body, she went to the gas station, where she found employees who had been there during the killing. They shared evidence that would separate Fabricio’s case from the many others in which it is the word of a witness against the word of police: surveillance footage.

The grainy video shows Fabricio filling up his tank, putting air in his tires and preparing to exit the gas station when a police cruiser pulls up. Fabricio turns his motorcycle around and begins driving away from the cruiser. His mother thinks he probably turned because he didn’t have a driver’s license, and didn’t want trouble.

The cruiser follows him, and then, with Fabricio off screen but the vehicle still in the frame, there is a flash of light — a single shot from a rifle.

It was still January when Dos Santos took the video to the media. Soon, news crews were filming the small protests she organized in her neighborhood.

Under growing pressure, prosecutors announced that June that they were charging the two officers with murder, accusing them of fabricating the story of the shootout and planting the gun on Fabricio.

“This is very rare, that an officer actually has to answer for his actions in court.”

— Maria Julia Miranda, public defender

The officers were allowed to keep working, although they were assigned administrative tasks.

Dos Santos knew she had a long road ahead. In Brazil it can take as long as a decade for a murder case to wind its way through court.

Every few months she trekked downtown for another hearing. Years passed before a judge decided that the case deserved to go before a jury. It took months more for another judge to weigh the defendants’ appeal to that decision.

As she exited the courthouse one day in 2016, Dos Santos noticed a group of women protesting on the sidewalk. One of them was talking about her 19-year-old, whom the police had killed with a shot in the back.

People look at photos on the ground.

Photos of people killed by police are displayed outside a courthouse in Rio de Janeiro.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

For Dos Santos, joining the city’s burgeoning movement of mothers who had lost children to police bullets was like finding family.

Elsewhere, police violence was starting to receive major attention. In 2014, protesters had taken to the streets of Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of a Black 18-year-old named Michael Brown. A hashtag was spreading on the internet: #BlackLivesMatter.

In Brazil, the movement was growing, but more slowly.

Though slavery lasted here until 1888, longer than anywhere else in the Americas, Brazil never had formal segregation like in the United States, and the country had long viewed its history more through the lens of class than race.

Among the key figures in the burgeoning antiracism movement was Rio de Janeiro City Councilwoman Marielle Franco. A single mother from a favela not far from Chapadão, she was passionate about stopping abuse by police, whom she accused of acting like death squads.

In March 2018, she tweeted about a killing in a favela: “They come to carve up the population! They come to kill our young!” A few days later, she and her driver were shot to death in downtown Rio.

The two men charged with her murder are former Rio police officers. They are still awaiting trial.

Franco’s death intensified calls for reform. But the movement also sparked backlash.

Some argued that there couldn’t be a racial element to the killings, given that about 45% of Brazil’s police are Black. Others said tough policing was necessary, given Brazil’s battle against violent crime.

Still, killings by police were climbing far faster than homicides overall. And as homicides started to dip from their 2017 peak of 64,078, law enforcement kept killing in increasing numbers.

The trend was most extreme in Rio, where the police found an ally in Bolsonaro, who was a congressman at the time.

Men stand side by side.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, center, has pushed for laws that would provide immunity for officers who commit homicide in the line of duty. He is up for reelection on Sunday.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

His pledge to crush criminals with an iron fist helped win him a national following and propel him to the presidency.

Shortly after taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro pushed legislation to shield security forces who shoot from prosecution, vowing that criminals “are going to die in the streets like cockroaches … how it should be.” The legislation failed to pass, but many worried that the president’s rhetoric encouraged police to act violently.

During his four years in office, killings by police have hovered around their all-time high.

“A policeman who doesn’t kill isn’t a policeman.”

— President Jair Bolsonaro

Dos Santos remained undeterred, despite the costs. When she felt guilty about how her focus on the case meant she had less time for her three daughters, she told herself she was doing it for them and the other children of the favela.

She also came to believe that her activism was putting her own life in danger.

One friend from the favela who had lost a son to police bullets and who had worked to get a particularly violent police officer moved out of their neighborhood faced death threats and fled.

“The police come here to hunt,” said the man, who did not give his name out of fear of retaliation. “Now I have no dignity. I have no life. I’m a fugitive.”

Dos Santos’ case had crawled along for eight years. But finally, it was a nearing a decision.

In Brazil, prosecutors and the defense lay out the details of their cases first for a judge, and then do it again before a jury in a rapid-fire trial that can reach conclusion in a single day.

A few days before the jury trial was set to begin, Dos Santos stood at the entrance to her favela waiting for the arrival of Guilherme Pimentel, the ombudsman from the Rio public defender’s office. His taxi finally pulled up, and the two embraced.

People talk.

Guilherme Pimentel, center, ombudsman of the public defender’s office of Rio de Janeiro, meets with Glaucia dos Santos, far right, and others.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Dos Santos had spent the morning walking the neighborhood to get permission from gang leaders to let Pimentel and a small delegation of government human rights officials enter the community.

They passed a checkpoint manned by an armed guard and settled down in red plastic chairs arranged in a circle on the patio of a cafe. “We want to know what has been happening here and how we can help,” Pimentel began.

A man stands in a street.

Ronaldo Lacerda’s 21-year-old cousin was recently killed by police.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Ronaldo Lacerda, a 28-year-old funk DJ with dyed-orange hair, described the recent shooting death of his 21-year-old cousin.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I should be dead too.”

Dos Santos was upset that Lacerda and his friends had protested the killing by setting a bus on fire.

“It’s fair to rebel. I understand,” Dos Santos said. “But you’ve got to have a strategy. One guy lights a bus on fire, and then that’s what ends up being showed on TV. They will use that image in the trial.”

The young man nodded.

Three women stand in a street.

Maria Julia Miranda, left, a public defender, talks with Sonia Bonfim Vicente, center, and another woman. Bonfim’s husband and son were killed by police.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Sonia Bonfim Vicente, 37, spoke next. Her husband and son were taking the son’s girlfriend to the hospital last year on a motorbike when all three were shot by police. Only the girlfriend survived.

As Bonfim talked about her son, Samuel, who was due to enlist in the military the day after he was killed, Dos Santos reached out and took her arm.

A public defender jotted down Bonfim’s information. But she cautioned the crowd against too much hope.

 A woman and a child.

Sonia Bonfim Vicente with her daughter, Anna Thereza, 5.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

“She’s an exception,” the public defender, Maria Julia Miranda, said of Dos Santos. “This is very rare, that an officer actually has to answer for his actions in court.”

Inside the courthouse, Dos Santos was whisked away to an area for people who would testify. She would be called as a character witness, and to describe the last time she had seen Fabricio, driving off alone.

A man talks to reporters.

Cassiano Pereira, an attorney for one of the accused police officers, explains to reporters what his client said happened on the night that Fabricio dos Santos was shot and killed.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The officers each faced seven years in prison if convicted of both murder and fraud for having planted the gun.

An attorney for one of them said the pair would argue that they were fired upon by suspects on two motorcycles, even if no witness saw that and it wasn’t visible in the video.

The rest of the mothers gathered outside the courtroom, waiting to be let in. But 30 minutes passed. Then an hour. The mothers nervously sipped plastic cups of coffee.

Eventually, Dos Santos came back, her shoulders slumped. A lawyer for one of the defendants hadn’t showed up. The judge had postponed the trial until April.

Three women embrace.

Glaucia dos Santos is comforted by supporters.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Dos Santos had briefly stood in the same room as the officers, who were not in uniform.

“They assured me they are not working in the streets,” she said.

“At least they’re not killing anyone,” one woman muttered.

“We have to come back next year and come back with more people,” another woman told her.

Dos Santos went out the way she had come. The sky had clouded over and wind was picking up. A few fat raindrops fell as she and her sister said goodbye to the other mothers and boarded a bus that would take them back to the favela.


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North America

Impeachment Imminent for Yoon Suk-Yeol in 2023?

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South Korea’s home affairs have been nothing short of a riveting drama series unfolding in real time. While the previous season starring Moon Jae-in was about a dragon slayer turned a dragon but with more heads, the current season follows the story of an ex-Prosecutor General who, having made it to the top political office, is trying to whip things into order while displaying next to no political skills and despite the need to toe the line of conservative rhetoric.

Who is Yoon Suk-yeol and what he has accomplished over his six months in power

Those who see Yoon as a typical member of the conservative camp need to check his earlier record, when he took part in student protests or famously led the investigation into the 2012 presidential elections scandal involving “political trolls”, national security agencies orchestrating an online smear campaign against the Democratic Party candidate. Although the investigation was eventually dropped, Yoon’s name surfaced yet again, when the government was looking for an investigator to probe corruption allegations against Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak—and it was Yoon who was credited with unearthing the necessary evidence to back Park’s indictment.

Following this success, Yoon was appointed Prosecutor General by Moon Jae-in, who apparently expected him to rubber stamp jail convictions as instructed. The new prosecutor, however, demonstrated integrity and homed in on corruption among the President’s entourage. Following a protracted bureaucratic tug-of-war between the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office (SPO) and an attempt to suspend him from office, Yoon ended up in politics and joined the conservative People Power Party (PPP) for lack of any third political force in South Korea.

Yoon’s political career with the PPP did not get off to a smooth start. He ran afoul of both classic right-wing and right-center conservatives, whose Lee Jun-seok was Chairman of the Party. During the election campaign, however, Yoon succeeded in building his own faction with his old buddies and former prosecution officers.

Nevertheless, Yoon won the presidential race by a meagre 0.73%, the tiniest margin in South Korea’s electoral history, whereas Lee Jae-myung, his principal contender and a former Mayor of Seongnam and Governor of Gyeonggi-do Province, fetched more votes than Moon Jae-in five years before.

Although this analysis does not aim to provide a comprehensive overview of Yoon Suk-yeol’s first six months in power, it is worth noting that he got down to his presidential business with a good deal of zest that has met with no lesser resistance.

Yoon opened his presidency with a few major eye-catching moves to demonstrate his commitment to serious change. In his first most sweeping gesture, Yoon relocated his presidential office from the Blue House to the former Ministry of Defense building, emphasizing his resolve to end the “imperial presidency”. Then, the new president has avoided any overt acts of political vengeance and called for cooperation across ideological and party divides. A committee has been set up with a mandate to promote national unity in politics, economy, culture, and other areas.

Yoon has also continued the policy of commemorating the victims of the military dictatorship, seeking to hijack the Democrats’ agenda and taking part in such events as the commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980.

Yoon’s Cabinet and Administration are teaming with ex-Democrats, including the Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, though most public officers at the top have a history of serving under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, a fact that left its mark on their political views. And yet Yoon was the first to meet with the Russian ambassador ahead of his Democratic opponent.

Yoon has reorganized his Presidential Office, abolishing, rather radically, the office of the Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs previously regarded as the master lever for exercising informal influence over and forcing president’s will on security agencies and the civil society. Further plans envisage support in overhauling 350 government agencies to improve their productivity and efficiency. Then, there is a big focus on anti-corruption efforts which, as the South Korean tradition goes, pursue a dual purpose of fighting corruption and ousting political opponents from positions of power. On yet another line of resolute action, the government has launched a crackdown on drug trafficking.

Significant changes have been made to the economic policy. While the previous administration relied on rising personal incomes to drive economic growth, Yoon Suk-yeol and his government prioritize the private sector. Another notable change was the scrapping of the nuclear phase-out policy and reinstatement of the “nuclear ecosystem”.

To tackle the growing missile and nuclear threat from North Korea, the new Administration came up with an “extended deterrent” policy based on the alliance between Seoul and Washington as well as the cooperation between South Korea, the United States and Japan. But the “bold initiative”, which is in fact a repackaged version of proposals harking back to the times of Lee Myung-bak (denuclearization in exchange for economic aid), was rejected while the military cooperation with the U.S. renewed on the same historical scale was responsible for the long-drawn-out bout of escalation between the Koreas and “mounting threats”.

In spite of the declarations of strategic alliance with the United States, Seoul participates in economic formats avoiding any steps, or is reluctant to get involved in any projects, that could be damaging to its relations with China or Russia. Quite tellingly, Yoon cold-shouldered Nancy Pelosi refusing to get back from his vacation to meet the U.S. House Speaker in person during her tour of Asia and confining his welcome to a mere phone conversion.

The energetic efforts of the new President have encountered a whole raft of barriers. The first is a deeply divided society. The election defeat with the narrowest margin in South Korea’s electoral history was dismissed by the Democrats as purely accidental and even their fiasco at the local elections in June 2022 (where they secured only five out of seventeen provincial governor seats and mayor seats in directly-controlled cities) has not done much to wake them up to reality.

Moreover, since Moon Jae-in had left politics, the Democratic Party chair was taken by Lee Jae-myung, Yoon’s presidential rival with a controversial reputation of a populist who appears more left-wing in his pledges than Moon himself.

Adding to the contention is the Democrats’ overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. The opposition Democratic Party of Korea holds 169 out of 300 seats in the National Assembly, while the ruling People’s Power Party has 114. Thus, the Democrats are in good position to torpedo most of Yoon’s initiatives or reject his nominations to government offices (appointing someone without parliamentary consent is frowned upon as bad political manners). The legislating process can be simply paralyzed as the parties refuse to budge and compromise. This ongoing impasse is set to last till the next parliamentary elections in spring 2024.

The ruling party is struggling to stand united as Yoon’s supporters and conservatives teamed up against Lee Jun-seok entangled in a corruption scandal with bribes that he had received in kind as sexual services. The Ethics Committee suspended Lee’s party membership for eighteen months, but he refused to surrender his chairmanship of the party resorting to relentless litigation to overrule his opponents’ resolutions. After a long fight, Lee was finally dethroned—but he and his followers are still there to stay.

The second challenge lies in the current economic troubles, for which Yoon as President bears at least symbolic responsibility. South Korea’s economy is facing tough times with steeply rising inflation, the weak won versus the U.S. dollar, and steep interest rate hikes. Forecasts point to the growing risks of market volatility and a global recession driven by a dramatic rise in the U.S. Federal Reserve funds rate, Chinese economy slowdown and the fallout from the protracted conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The growing external economic uncertainty increases the risks of domestic stagflation and fast-paced high inflation resulting from skyrocketing energy and commodity prices as well as from persistent disruptions in the global supply chains. Some economists believe that South Korea may find itself in a situation similar to the 2008 economic crisis, at the very least. But since most of the above comes as legacy problems inherited from the previous Administration, Yoon’s critics are pointing their accusatory fingers elsewhere.

Take, for example, his controversial government appointments. where Yoon has been criticized on three counts. The first line of attack had to do with the lack of inclusivity and gender equality as many of his nominees to top positions are those whom he has long known personally, mostly men in their fifties and fellow graduates of the Seoul National University. The second fault-finding narrative talks about a “Republic of Prosecutors”, since Yoon’s team includes, for obvious reasons, quite a few people with the SPO background, including the Minister of Justice, Minister of Unification and President’s Chief of Staff. The third is concerned with specific scandals ranging from real cases of corruption to questionable allegations way back in the past. Although most rows have been settled by self-withdrawals or resignations, they leave behind a sense of frustrated expectations laced with a foul aftertaste.

On top of it, the new Administration has ignored their pledge “not to do things the way Moon did” and started using some of the previous President’s methods such as forcing some of Moon-appointed officials from their posts and pressing them to resign for the sake of maintaining stability in the current government.

From the Conservatives’ perspective Yoon has let down his people because he failed to deliver on his pledge of introducing innovation and change in line with his vision of the future. In their opinion, he should have used this decisive period of his presidency to propose a plan and lay down the groundwork for effective government administration, but has made no progress on that front. The fact that some of his plans have been blocked by the Democrats does not count any more. In the eyes of the opposition, Yoon is building a dictatorship while showing a graphic example of total incompetence.

The third problem is Yoon’s media presence. On the one hand, Yoon is not a professional politician, on the other, he almost never leaves the spotlight and talks to the media every day. Given that the right-wing outlets are controlled by his political adversaries they criticize Yoon with equal regularity. His public gaffes and ambiguous statements are instantly made public and enhanced with fitting commentaries.

The last big media scandal flared up during Yoon’s visit to New York in September 2022 when Yoon was caught cursing on a live microphone after exiting from a disappointing meeting with Joe Biden. His outburst was recorded and aired later on the pro-democratic MBC network, this time complete with very specific subtitles in spite of not very distinct sound. To be sure, when Yoon banned MBC from joining the media pool for his next international visit this sparked accusations that he was trying to stifle the freedom of speech.

All of the above have been steadily eroding Yoon’s approval rating from 52% when he took office down to a little more than 30% on September 10th, 2022, which is extremely poor performance for a president in the early months of his term. And the numbers are still oscillating around this level with only 30.1% of those surveyed on November 10th responding that they are satisfied with Yoon Suk-yeol as their President and 64.9% disapproving of the way he handles the top job.

“War with the Democrats”

Under the circumstances, both parties use the word “war” to describe their current stand-off. There are several reasons for that. First, every party that has fought its way to power sweeps clean the conquered ground under the pretext of combatting corruption. Second, political vengeance and settling old scores are embedded in the political culture of South Korea. Most Conservatives, apparently in no mood to break the tradition of locking up the ex-President, are eager to have their reckoning for the jailing of Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak. Third, Yoon Suk-yeol is clearly resolved to see through the investigations which had eventually brought him to swap his Prosecutor’s Office for the President’s one.

For now, public prosecutors have their sights trained on the ex-President Moon Jae-in and the current Democratic Party Leader Lee Jae-myung. The political emergency helped Lee to rally the support of the party that was all the more unanimous since his foremost rivals either had left politics or cut less charismatic and recognizable figures. With all that, some openly said that Lee Jae-myung had been fighting not for the party chair or a parliament seat, but for his own safety and being able to recast the allegations against him as revenge for his political views.

The accusations against Moon Jae-in are related to two incidents. The first one was the repatriation of North Korean defectors in 2019, when two fishermen had murdered 16 of their comrades before they “chose freedom” and headed South, trying to escape the North Korean justice. The Moon’s government deported them, kicking and screaming, back home. The ethical reasons were good enough, but under the Constitution of South Korea all North Korean defectors are deemed to be citizens of South Korea and shall not be repatriated. Besides, there was no proper investigation, and the Conservatives might claim that the murder had not been proved and therefore Moon just sacrificed the innocent for the sake of strengthening ties with the North.

The second incident was the death of a fisheries official, Lee Dae-jun, who, according to official reports, was shot by North Korean troops in the waters of North Korea in 2020. However doubtful is the official account of the events[1]. it has surfaced that in spite of insufficient evidence Lee was portrayed not as a victim but as someone who had tried to cross over to the North fleeing gambling debts and domestic troubles. Aggravating the picture, the President knew for a fact that a citizen of the Republic was in North Korean waters but failed to take any action to rescue him. This highlights Moon as a politician who prioritizes relations with the North over human lives as well as reminds everyone about Park Geun-hye who had allegedly done nothing to save the high school kids on the sinking Sewol ferry. Though indeed Park’s government had neither capability nor any chance to rescue them. While the ex-President refuses to cooperate with the investigators, the Conservative party members keep reminding him about his own criticism of Park Geun-hye for similar behavior.

The accusations against Lee Jae-myung are more mundane. They have been trailing him since his gubernatorial years in the city of Seongnam and boil down to astronomical profits pocketed by his crony developers in the construction business at a huge cost to the municipal budget. Lee also appears to have accepted bribes from businessmen disguised as contributions to a football club under his patronage in exchange for various preferences. Although the inquiry has led to some arrests already, there is no direct evidence against Lee Jae-myung because all the four key witnesses against him had died—in a strange coincidence of two proven suicides and two apparently natural deaths—one or two days before their testimonies were due in court. As for his past abuses, Lee has so far been charged only with violating the Elections Act as he had denied the acquaintance of certain individuals involved in the scandals, a claim which later was found to be false.

In 2022, however the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office discovered that all the developers’ ill-earned gains had been hoarded in a hush fund that was used to bankroll Lee Jae-myung’s presidential campaign. The SPO has already detained a number of people in his inner circle.

Lee’s wife too is under investigation on charges of using a corporate credit card of the Gyeonggi-do Province administration to pay her personal expenses for shopping and restaurants at the time when her husband was governing the province in 2018–2021. She is also suspected in making public servants run her personal errands.

The Democrats deny all accusations, Lee Jae-myung proudly ignores any court summons, and his party puts a lot of pressure on the government to stall the investigation. The evidence of Lee Jae-myung’s corrupt behavior appears to have more substance than the “facts” against Park Geun-hye if only because this time we know how the bribe-givers’ money was spent. It would be fair to remember that Moon Jae-in also attempted to put Lee Jae-myung behind bars because Lee was his foremost contender within the party.

What bear much importance here is that the Democratic camp would be utterly discredited, as well as the left without a strong leadership, should these charges turn to convictions. First, because other Democratic leaders either have taken a time-out from politics or have been compromised. Second, when a public idol and Democratic politician who has promised to fight corruption is caught red-handed himself, this inflicts irreparable damage on the party’s reputation. In this context, the Democrats would probably stoop to any kind of ruse to stop the prosecutors’ onslaught. Considering the zeal with which their opponents in power got cracking on those investigations, the Democrats’ best bet to forestall the disaster would be to bring about a change of power by impeaching Yoon Suk-yeol.

So, the political gasoline has been spilt and the question is what unfortunate event will strike the incendiary match. It could be a scandal associated with Yoon or his close allies (this is yet unlikely as both the President and his entourage has steered clear of corruption) or a national tragedy, for which the President would be held fully responsible. For Park Geun-hye, the debacle was triggered by the sinking of the Sewol ferry that killed 300 people. Although the failed rescue operation was the fault of the local authorities and it was not possible for the central government to make any difference, the opposition was swift and smart to pin the blame on Park and make it stick. However groundless the claims were that Moon Jae-in and his cohorts had faked the news, the media campaign run by the Democrats still helped to undermine Park’s approval rating and shape the public image of the ex-President that played its role in the events that followed.

Given the above, there are two questions that need to be answered. Could the Seoul Halloween tragedy (a crowd crush in the district of Itaewon on October 29th, 2022 that left 158 people killed and about as many wounded) become the equivalent of the Sewol sinking for Yoon Suk-yeol, and would the Democrats try and set Yoon Suk-yeol up for impeachment over the late 2022–2023?

The Halloween tragedy and potential impeachment

This may remind the Russian readers of a similar tragedy in Minsk (Republic of Belarus) in 1999 near the Nemiga metro station where several thousand people got crammed into a narrow sloping alley, so when those coming down first slipped and fell the crowd pushed forward over their heads and the ensuing panic only added to the casualty count. Could the Halloween disaster have been prevented? On the one hand, the festivities were not a municipality event where police should always be deployed to maintain order, but an informal celebration and the first big public event after years of Covid restrictions that drew large crowds of Halloween party-goers who were left without proper official oversight as there was no specific organizer. On the other hand, the authorities failed to take measures and disperse the crowd in good time in spite of some warning calls about the risk of a crowd surge. It seems that the local police were wary of having to interfere with the street party and spoil the fun for the revelers.

A special police department is conducting a probe to understand what went wrong, but the resentment is bitter and already widespread with surveys showing that about 70% of those asked are unhappy about the way their government has been dealing with the consequences of the tragedy. The common sentiment is that punishment ought to be served to some of the high-profile government figures that usually bear merely symbolic responsibility rather than the rank-and-file officials who were directly responsible and failed to prevent the crush or promptly pass information about the imminent danger.

The Democrats, in their turn, have been trying to exploit the tragedy as a symbol of government helplessness and incompetence, demanding a parliamentary inquiry and an independent special prosecutor, and calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, Minister of Public Administration and Security Lee Sang-min, and Commissioner General of the Korean National Police Agency Yoon Hee-keun. To some extent this explains why the two latter officials have no intent of resigning right away on their own and thus acknowledging their share of responsibility but might do so after they have closed the case and sorted out the consequences.

Anyway, Yoon immediately declared a period of national mourning, during which he more than once visited the memorial altar, met with religious leaders and was generally demonstrating the government’s commitment to properly investigate the tragedy and punish those responsible. This has taken the wind out of the Democrats’ sails making it hard to blame Yoon for ignoring the people’s bereavement as effortlessly as they did it with Park Geun-hye. On a different tack, the Democrats have been trying to spread the word that the tragedy happened because all the local police were busy guarding the President whose residence is not far from the scene of the stampede. To set things straight, this is not true because President’s security is provided by other troops, and as for police availability, part of the force did have to be deployed elsewhere at two political rallies held by the Democrats and the Conservatives at the same time as the Halloween festivities.

It is problematic to poke any other faults since Yoon has been running the country for a little over six months and has not had time to make any consequential decisions that could supply political ammunition against him. Blaming Yoon for the economic storm is risky as this could lead to questions about who had sowed the wind in the first place.

Technically, however, there is little to stop the Democrats from initiating the impeachment proceedings that could be announced if voted for by 200 out of 300 Members of Parliament and subsequently endorsed by the Constitutional Court. The Democrats already have 169 votes that could be beefed up to 200 by enlisting allies from other left-wing parties and Yoon’s enemies among the Conservatives like Lee Jun-seok’s faction. They have enough of their appointees in the Constitutional Court, and, as the Candlelight Vigil showed, public protests can be as effective as backdoor influence in terms of putting pressure on a public institution.

Lurking as yet another potential factor in the fray are the United States that may choose to assist in toppling President Yoon to replace him with a classic right-winger, given that the Democrats are as pro-American as the Conservatives anyway. If the United States are gearing up for a global confrontation, Washington would be better off with an amenable rather than pragmatic head of South Korean state.

Nonetheless, Yoon still commands a fairly strong level of confidence and support, and, though there is no shortage of warts and all, his story is not that of someone who, having climbed to the top wishing to do justice and get rid of the usual politicking government types, degenerated into just another one of them as it had precipitously happened to Moon. The accusations against the Democrats themselves are quite grave and could also be leveraged to play on the people’s emotions. Especially, if their damaging power is boosted with the same rhetorical techniques that Moon and his supporters employed during the Candlelight Demonstrations. In addition, both sides competing for presidency “enjoy” fairly high disapproval ratings, and between the two unsavory reputations people tend to opt for the status quo.

Finally, the lasting effect of the previous presidential impeachment may, too, come to weigh in on the outcome because most of the allegations that had been bandied about by the media for five years and been driving angry protesters out into the streets were never proven in court. Furthermore, only the deleted messages in secret Telegram chats saved the Democrats from accusations that all those heart-rending rumors had been fake news fed in by Moon’s coterie via loyal top bloggers. While the realization that the masses had been already duped once might not necessarily hit the public domain, it may as well immunize the minds against future manipulation, and the Democrats would no longer be able to mechanically reuse their 2016 strategy.

Therefore, the Democrats are still quite likely to try and impeach the President, but an assessment of their chances of ultimate success would do better to look back for references well beyond 2016 and consider the events of 2004 when Roh Moo-hyun was impeached over his backing of a newly established political party consisting of his supporters, which was against the Constitution and put him on the wrong side of both the Conservatives and the “old-school” Democrats. The Assembly suspended his executive powers, but Roh Moo-hyun turned the tables so that in the eyes of the broader public his impeachment looked as if the old elite had been trying to stop the reforms. Then, Roh Moo-hyun’s party won the elections that were held in the interval between the impeachment vote and the pending ruling of the Constitutional Court and he was reinstated as President.

Be it as it may, the internal political turbulence in South Korea is clearly going to pack this drama season with a good deal of thrilling action and insightful lessons.

[1] His personal opinion is that there is no absolute certainty about whether the victim shot by North Korean troops and the missing official are one and the same person.

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Police funding bills pass the House

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Indiana was the first state to pass a new abortion ban in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse Roe v. Wade. State lawmakers on Aug. 5 passed a bill that bars abortion after conception, with narrow exceptions for victims of rape or incest, to save the life of the pregnant person and in cases where the fetus is diagnosed with a lethal anomaly. That law took effect on Sept. 15.

Abortion providers in the state, including Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawai’i, Alaska, Indiana and Kentucky, have challenged the ban on the grounds that it violates privacy protections in the state constitution and violates the requirement for equal protection under the law. Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher, who is defending the law on behalf of the state, argued in court this week that the constitution does not establish the right to an abortion.

In her order granting the injunction, Hanlon said that whether privacy protections exist in Indiana remains an “open question,” but there is a “reasonable likelihood” that the courts will side with the plaintiffs.

“Because of these considerations, and the history of Indiana’s Constitution being interpreted to provide greater protection to individual citizens than its federal counterpart, there is a reasonable likelihood that this significant restriction of personal autonomy offends the liberty guarantees of the Indiana Constitution and the Plaintiffs will prevail,” Hanlon wrote.


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State Programme Officer (SPO) of the Association of Civil Societies in Malaria Control, Immunisation, and Nutrition (ACOMIN), Mrs Maryjane C. Akwuaka, has said the ultimate target of the body is to ensure that health services are easily accessible, particularly in Primary Healthcare Facilities.
Akwuaka, who disclosed this recently in an exclusive interview shortly after the 5th monthly Coordination Meeting of ACOMIN with Civil Society Organisations (CBOs) working on its AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria (ATM) Project in Port Harcourt, said so far the CBOs have recorded successes towards the ultimate goal.
According to her, “what we’re looking out for is what the CBOs achieved in the month under review. From our discussions, most of them reported their achievements, though some of them were not able to achieve as they should this month.
“However, what matters in our project is the performance in a quarter. So, if you didn’t achieve as you should this month, you still have the opportunity of making up for it next month.
“Most of them got commitment from the community stakeholders about issues that they went to advocate for, through them. We’re hopeful that with a follow up visit, these commitments will be remedied.
“ACOMIN’s expectation as far as this project is concerned is to see improved health system, particularly at the Primary Healthcare facilities, where a common man can go to, and have access to quality healthcare services”, she said.
Buttressing the success story, the Executive Director, Association of Positive Youth In Nigeria (APYIN), Mrs Rejoice Sunday, said APYIN has recorded notable successes in Ebubu Community.
“Yes, we have recorded successes. This project is not just aimed at seeing that the gaps are closed by the government. The major aim is to see that the community comes in to take ownership of the facility, to see how they can contribute their quota as a community in the areas they can, apart from the areas the government has to come in,” she explained.
Sunday, who is the Coordinator for ACOMIN in the project in Ebubu Community, Eleme LGA, said APYIN has recorded successes notably in making Ebubu Community taking ownership of its health facility, and also provided other services.
“We have recorded successes in the areas of the community taking ownership. For instance, they never had security at the Ebubu primarily healthcare facility. They had the challenge of vandalization ot the facility in the past. Currently they’re making do with the Town Hall, but there was no security to ensure that whatever they had to keep the facility functioning was safe.
“But after our intervention, the community has taken ownership by ensuring that their vigilante services are extended to the facility. The vigilante is now readily available from the evenings to see that the facility and drugs are safe”, she stated.
Another gap discovered, she explained, was lack of cleaners.
“But after we had Focus Group Discussion (FGD) with members of the community, they’ve also taken up ownership by ensuring that the facility is always clean. They also come out to sanitize the facility”.
The same effort, she continued, aslo ensured that individuals donated such items as chairs, waste bins, buckets, etc. to makeshift health center.
She, however, noted that there are challenges for which the State Government would need to intervene.
Such challenges include provision of such items as Long Lasting Insecticide Treated Nets (LLITN) in the interim to prevent malaria, and drugs for tuberculosis.
Ultimately, she called for renovation and equipping of the existing health center for the community.
On his part, the State Chairman, ACOMIN, Chief John Ihua-Maduenyi, said the meeting “is a review of our activities for the month in the various communities”.
While acknowledging the successes recorded so far, he urged the CBOs still lagging to sit-up.
“They should take their work more seriously than they are doing now: the Executive Directors (EDs), for instance, must know what their officers are doing in the field, and ensure that they review their report at all times”, he said.
The CBOs currently working with ACOMIN are: “Arinze Maduenyi Foundation”; “Dawn of Life Foundation”; and “Rivers of Hope and Humanitarian Initiative” in Obio/Apkor.
In PHALGA, they are: Connecting Peace Initiative; Gods Gift Support Group; and “Support for Mankind Development Initiative”, while Eleme LGA has “Support for Sistanable Development Initiative”; “Dynamic Charity Foundation”; and “Association of Positive Youths in Nigeria”.
“Center for Development Strategies Initiative”; “Center for Education and Support Initiative”; “Mercy of God and Humanitarian Initiative”, are in Tai LGA, while “Christian Help International Foundation”; “Ke-Dumle Support Group”; and Society for Women and Youth Affairs are in Khana LGA.

By: Soibi Max-Alalibo

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