There’s something chilling about journalists being detained and tried in a foreign country … a prospect made all the more uncomfortable when you throw the “Dear Leader” into the mix. But, do we really know what’s about to happen? Well, aside from the fact that they’re going to be tried “according to the indictment of the competent organ“?
Frankly, there’s little information about what Laura Ling and Euna Lee are about to experience, unsurprising considering the state of information flow to and from the reclusive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – also known as North Korea). Based on the nuggets available, the DPRK has never held an official trial for a foreigner. Evan Hunziker, a missionary who swam from China to North Korea in 1996 – now that’s determination! – was detained for a few months and then released only to commit suicide a little later. Hunziker did not have the benefit of legal proceedings.
Here’s what is known:
Ling and Lee will be tried in the Central Court, the top court in the DPRK. Typically, this is an appellate court, but for cases considered to be extreme – and against the country itself – it has initial jurisdiction. In a sense, this would be like to alleged criminals being tried by the Supreme Court in the United States. So, it looks like the DPRK is trying to make a point.
The judges are elected by the Supreme People’s Assembly – the North Korea’s legislative body. The trial itself will have one judge and two “people’s assessors.” The latter are essentially “lay judges.” Appeals usually warrant a panel with three actual judges.
Now, this next point is interesting. You do not have to have any legal education or experience to become a judge. Before going on a tirade about the injustice of it all, consider the requirements for becoming a Supreme Court justice. There is no education or experience requirement in the U.S. Constitution. And, the justice has to be confirmed by the legislative body – which sounds strangely like a legislative body’s voting to select judges. In some states, such as New York, the electorate votes for judges, many of whom not only have no legal education or experience but routinely screw up trials because their rulings are contrary to law.
On paper, at least, the two systems aren’t all that different.
The Central Court’s rulings can’t be appealed. If I remember correctly (and it’s been a while since high school civics class), you can’t appeal a Supreme Court ruling. To whom would you appeal it?
Here’s where it get’s a little creepy.
In North Korea, the accused does not have the right to defend herself (or, of course, himself) and does not have the right to be represented by a lawyer. A defense attorney can be selected, according to DPRK law, by the defendant, the defendant’s family or her “organizational representatives” – probably Current TV, in this case. Neither Ling nor Lee has had any legal access, so it seems unlikely that they’ll get to pick a lawyer. I doubt Current TV or the families will have much of a say.
Even if they could choose lawyers, pickings are slim. The U.S. State Department states that there is “no indication that independent, nongovernmental defense lawyers [are available].”
The trial will be conducted in Korean, but the defendants will be able to use their own languages during the trial – a trial that is open to the public, unless there is concern that state secrets may be exposed. Defector testimony suggests that trials are usually closed.
Depending on the exact nature of the charges, the two journalists could spend more than a decade each in a labor camp. Death is not on the table, as this punishment has been reserved for four crimes since 2004: trying to overthrow the government, terrorism (though I don’t think it counts if it’s terrorism against a capitalist devil), treason and “suppressing the people’s movement for national liberation [huh?].” Yep, nice and broad … and you don’t even need to go to court to be executed.