SEOUL: Amnesty International on Thursday accused South Korea of systematically abusing a 65-year-old security law in order to stifle debate and silence political opposition in Asia's fourth-largest economy.
In a 40-page report the rights watchdog documented a "dramatic increase" in the use of the National Security Law (NSL) under the administration of President Lee Myung-Bak who took office in 2008.
Since 2008, the authorities have increasingly used vaguely worded clauses of the NSL to arbitrarily target people or organisations perceived to oppose government policies, especially on North Korea, Amnesty said.
"The NSL is being used as a smoke screen to hound critics of the government, with serious consequences for those targeted," Rajiv Narayan, Amnesty's East Asia Researcher, said in a statement.
The report cited figures from the National Prosecutors Office showing the number of new cases registered under the NSL had nearly doubled from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011.
The majority were booked on charges of posting allegedly pro-Pyongyang content online.
Eighteen websites were closed for such content in 2009, and that number had risen to 178 by October 2011.
"No one is denying the right of South Korea to ensure the security of its citizens. But that is not what is being witnessed with the arbitrary and widening application of the NSL. Such abuse has to end," Narayan said.
The NSL was adopted in 1948 with the establishment of the Republic of Korea.
Its stated aim was to protect the fledgling South Korean government against espionage and other threats from a belligerent North Korea.
The United Nations has been calling for decades for the reform of the legislation, criticising its use to counter political dissent.
The Amnesty report highlighted what it described as an emerging trend for invoking the NSL against individuals and groups that had no tangible pro-North Korea stance.
In a recent case, widely reported in the international media, a South Korean court handed down a 10-month suspended prison sentence to a 24-year-old photographer, Park Jeung-Geun, who re-tweeted postings from a North Korean Twitter account.
Park insisted he was not a supporter of North Korea and said his intention had been to lampoon the leadership in Pyongyang by re-tweeting their propaganda.
While the court acknowledged that some of Park's posts amounted to parody, it also ruled that his acts were tantamount to "supporting and joining forces with an anti-state entity".
In February, bookseller Kim Myeong-Soo was given a six-month suspended sentenced for owning and selling the "wrong" books -- including works on North Korea, Marxism and socialism and some with "revolution" in the title.
The release of the Amnesty report comes just weeks before South Koreans go to the polls to choose a replacement for Lee Myung-Bak who must stand down having served the one five-year term allowed by the constitution.
Amnesty said it had written to all the presidential candidates, urging them to abolish or fundamentally reform the NSL.