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Former Korean President Receives Death Sentence

By Sandra Sugawara
The Washington Post

A Seoul court Monday sentenced former South Korean president Chun Doo Hwan to death after finding him guilty of mutiny, treason and corruption. His successor, Roh Tae Woo, was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Chun and Roh, standing in short-sleeved blue prison garb before a three-judge panel, listened grimly in a courtroom packed with 200 people as the presiding judge read his statement. The cameras were removed from the courtroom after the initial few minutes of the hearing, so Chun's and Roh's reaction were not immediately known.

Both men have a week to appeal the sentences, although there was speculation Monday that they will not. It is widely thought that President Kim Young Sam will pardon them. Such a move would gain Kim, the first president without a military background in three decades, support among conservatives. It also would spare the country the possibly divisive anguish of having its former presidents severely punished, analysts said. Many feel that the shame of a conviction would be punishment enough for the two men.

Although prosecutors had requested the death sentence for Chun, many analysts had predicted that the sentence would be less severe. However presiding judge Kim Young Il said the crimes committed were serious enough to warrant the severe punishment.

Roh was spared the life imprisonment demanded by prosecutors. Judge Kim said that Roh had only been following Chun's lead. He also said Roh's efforts to promote democracy in South Korea had been taken into account.

The verdict represents an ignominious ending for the two former army generals who ruled South Korea during the 1980s and early 1990s and were instrumental in shaping its emergence as an Asian economic powerhouse.

Indeed, the spectacle of the two once powerful leaders, dressed in prison garb like common criminals and standing grimly before the three judges, riveted the nation. South Koreans gathered around televisions in stores, businesses and homes to watch the stunning symbol of the political transformation that South Korea has undergone in the past three years.

The trial has been viewed by many South Korean less as a hearing on the specific crimes committed more than a decade ago by aging military leaders than as a pivotal step toward the establishment of the rule of law by a country trying to cleanse itself of its brutal and corrupt past. Chun and Roh have criticized the trial as a political ploy by the president to boost his popularity.

Chun and Roh were convicted of mutiny and treason for staging a 1979 coup within the military following the assassination of President Park Chung Hee. Chun was also found guilty of treason for the 1980 massacre of 200 people in the city of Kwangju, but the judge said there was insufficient evidence to find him guilty of murdering people for the purpose of treason. During that incident, students and others protesting martial law imposed by the Chun-led military were gunned down. The slaughter remains an evocative rallying point for many South Koreans.

Fifteen people altogether were convicted Monday on sedition and treason charges. One person was found not guilty. All except Chun received lesser sentences than requested by the prosecutors. Later Monday, the court will hand down sentences in corruption cases involving other top officials and business executives.

The two men admitted taking the money but said they were political donations, not bribes. Such donations were an accepted way of doing business back then, according to South Korean businessmen. The two former presidents also maintained their innocence on the treason charges, arguing that they acted in the interest of national security and that the crackdown in Kwangju was necessary to avert instability that might prompt an invasion.

An aloof man with a military bearing, Chun was widely unpopular. As Chun's protege, Roh shocked South Korea when in 1987 he agreed to presidential elections after weeks of student democracy demonstrations that had the support of the middle class. But anger over the Kwangju incident and an alleged culture of political corruption in South Korea continued to plague the reputations of both men.

It has been widely predicted here that business leaders also charged in the case, charged with buying government favors, would get off lightly because of their key roles in the economy.