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[Newsmaker] 10 indicted, 12 under probe over death of Air Force sexual abuse victim

This photo, taken on Thursday, shows a memorial altar at a military hospital in Seongnam, south of Seoul, for a noncommissioned officer, surnamed Lee, who took her own life after being sexually harassed by a colleague. (Yonhap)
This photo, taken on Thursday, shows a memorial altar at a military hospital in Seongnam, south of Seoul, for a noncommissioned officer, surnamed Lee, who took her own life after being sexually harassed by a colleague. (Yonhap)
Military prosecutors have indicted 10 people over the death of an Air Force sexual harassment victim following a monthlong investigation into a string of irregularities that led to the noncommissioned officer taking her own life, the defense ministry said Friday.

The number of officials to stand trial could further rise as a dozen others are still under investigation, the ministry said, announcing the interim results of its probe into the incident that sparked an intense public outcry over the military's failure to protect the victim.

The master sergeant, surnamed Lee, took her own life in May, three months after she was allegedly groped and suffered other abuse by a colleague of the same rank, surnamed Jang.

Jang was arrested last month, only after the case became known to the media.

According to probe results, Air Force officials allegedly tried to cover up the case without giving proper help to the victim.

In addition to Jang, two other Air Force noncommissioned officers -- a warrant officer and a senior master sergeant, both surnamed Noh -- were arrested and indicted on charges of pressuring Lee to drop her complaint.

The others charged include colonels accused of failing to properly report Lee's death to the defense ministry by leaving out the key information that she was a sex crime victim; Lee's colleagues suspected of destroying evidence; and officers at another wing accused of leaking the victim's sufferings to other members at the unit that she transferred to after the March incident.

In the course of the investigation, prosecutors also found that two warrant officers, including the arrested Noh, allegedly molested Lee in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Six people, including a public defender, who is suspected of failing to provide adequate legal support to Lee, and a lieutenant colonel at an Air Force military police squadron accused of poor initial investigation into the case, were relieved of their duties.

The ministry said it will seek the dismissal of nine others, including the chief of the 20th Fighter Wing where the incident took place, from their posts, and refer 16 others to the disciplinary committee.

"A total of 47 people will either face an investigation or disciplinary measures, the biggest number for a single incident since the Air Force's foundation," Vice Defense Minister Park Jae-min said during a press briefing.

"We extend our deep apologies to the victim who had to end her life before fulfilling her dream as a service member and to the bereaved family," Park said.

Following the ministry's announcement, Lee's father expressed "strong regrets," saying the ministry doesn't seem to be carrying out the investigation with a strong determination as was promised by President Moon Jae-in.

"It is particularly regretful that the head of the ministry's criminal investigation command which oversees the military police only received a warning as a disciplinary measure," he said. "The defense ministry's investigation should not be delayed or suspended for any reason."

The latest incident has sparked intense public fury, leading to former Air Force Chief of Staff Lee Seong-yong stepping down and President Moon apologizing.

Military investigators sought to question the former Air Force chief as a witness in the case, but he has declined, officials said.

The defense ministry appeared busy the past month, launching a series of task forces and meetings to address the issue, but whether the military is capable of overhauling itself is still being questioned.

Last week, a one-star general was relieved of his duties and arrested for allegedly attempting to molest one of his subordinates after a dinner together, throwing a wet blanket over the military's pledges to stamp out sex crimes in barracks.

The ministry said it will establish a separate investigation team as well as a new judge panel dedicated to sexual violence cases, and consider establishing an office equivalent to the US Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) to prevent similar incidents from recurring.

"The investigation team will do our best so that the defendants will receive punishment corresponding to their misconduct and continue the investigation to get to the bottom of this case," the ministry said in a statement. (Yonhap)