Former president posthumously acquitted

SEOUL, July 3 (Yonhap) -- A dissident-turned-former president of South Korea was posthumously acquitted in a retrial 36 years after he was imprisoned for campaigning against the military-backed regime led by then President Park Chung-hee.

The Seoul High Court on Wednesday found the late President Kim Dae-jung, a liberal icon, not guilty of violating a now-defunct emergency decree enforced by late Park to suppress the pro-democracy movement and apologized to Kim's bereaved family for the "disgraceful" decision by the state.

"Please be noted that the ruling means that the court has the deepest apology and respect (for Kim)," Judge Lee Kyu-jin said, adding that the former president's devotion for human rights greatly contributed to bringing about democracy in the country.

Kim's widow, the former first lady Lee Hee-ho, welcomed the court's decision.

"I am really pleased," Lee told reporters and asked judicial authorities to make good decisions in the future to prevent innocent people from getting wrongly incarcerated.

In 1977, Kim was sentenced to five years in prison for resisting the regime by reading a declaration in central Seoul that called for scrapping the constitution declared by Park.

In the same ruling, the court also delivered a not-guilty verdict to deceased Reverend Moon Ik-hwan who was imprisoned after being convicted of the same charge. Fourteen other high-profile figures and pro-democracy activists such as former late President Yoon Bo-seon and Ham Seok-heon were also acquitted.

The decision was made in line with a landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court earlier this year that three of the nine emergency decrees issued by Park were unconstitutional as they "excessively limited and infringed upon the people's basic rights."

Park, who ruled South Korea from 1961-1979 after seizing power in a military coup, introduced a new constitution, known as the Yushin (revitalizing reform) Constitution that critics said was aimed at perpetuating his rule.

Empowered by the Yushin Constitution, the late Park -- the father of incumbent President Park Geun-hye -- shut down parliament and promulgated nine emergency decrees under which more than 1,000 people were arrested and put in prison for simply criticizing his rule.

Among other things, the decrees outlawed criticism of his government, political protest rallies and the spreading of rumors deemed unhealthy by the government, as well as any reporting on such activities by the press.

Wednesday's ruling marks the latest in a series of court acquittals of those indicted or imprisoned in the 1970s for breaching emergency decrees, which were used to subdue dissent.

The former president died from complications of pneumonia in August 2009 at the age of 85. His tumultuous life fighting for democracy and reconciliation with North Korea led him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, shortly after the first inter-Korean summit with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

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