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S. Korean Court: Government Must Pay Salt Farm Slaves

FILE - A man walks through a salt farm on Sinui Island, South Korea, April 3, 2014. A court ruled Sept. 8, 2017, that the South Korean government must pay 37 million won ($33,000) to a man who'd been held as a slave there. Three others also must be paid, a court ruled Friday.

The South Korean government must pay 80 million won ($70,700) to three men who were enslaved on salt farms in remote islands off the country’s southwest coast for several years, a court ruled Friday.

The Seoul High Court said the government was responsible for their ordeals because local officials and police failed to properly monitor their living and working conditions. The court said the government should pay 30 million won ($26,500) each to two of the men and 20 million won ($17,700) to the third plaintiff.

More than 60 slaves, most of them with intellectual disabilities, were rescued from the islands following an investigation led by mainland police in 2014.

The Associated Press documented some of their stories in a yearlong investigation.

No officials indicted

Dozens of farm owners and job brokers were indicted, but no police or officials were punished despite allegations some knew about the slavery.

Eight former slaves sued the government last year, seeking a combined 240 million won ($212,000) in damages. But the Seoul Central District Court in September last year awarded compensation to only one of them, saying that the government’s responsibility was unclear in the other seven cases. Three of the plaintiffs who were rejected appealed to the high court.

Lawsuits against the government in human rights cases are rarely successful in South Korea because the burden of proof in non-criminal cases is entirely on the plaintiffs, who often lack information or resources. The plaintiffs’ lawyers had submitted to the high court written testimonies by the islands’ administrative and police officials who admitted to knowing that the plaintiffs were working against their will although they did not act to protect them.

Rescued in 2014

Most of the salt farm slaves rescued in 2014 had been lured to the islands by job brokers hired by salt farm owners, who would beat them into long hours of backbreaking labor and confine them at their houses for years while providing little or no pay. The slavery was revealed when two police officers from Seoul came to the island of Sinui disguised as tourists and pulled off a clandestine operation to rescue one of the slaves who had been reported by his family as missing.

One of the Seoul police officers who rescued the man told the AP they went undercover because of concerns about collaborative ties between the island’s police and salt farm owners. That man did not appeal after his compensation was rejected last year, according to lawyers.