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[Newsmaker] Sex crime victim awaited help that never came: military

Vice Defense Minister Park Jae-min (front) concludes a press briefing about the death of a sexually assaulted Air Force master sergeant who died by suicide on May 22. (Yonhap)
Vice Defense Minister Park Jae-min (front) concludes a press briefing about the death of a sexually assaulted Air Force master sergeant who died by suicide on May 22. (Yonhap)
The military failed in its response to a sexual assault complaint from an Air Force master sergeant, who later took her life, the Ministry of National Defense said Friday in its interim report.

The ministry’s joint investigation team said that the master sergeant was repeatedly revictimized by the abuser and those sympathetic to him, which ultimately pushed her to take her life.

The team has been looking into the circumstances surrounding the suicide since June 1. The victim’s family says that the military should be held accountable as it bungled the initial probe when she first filed the complaint on March 2, before her death on May 22.

“She sought the military’s attention multiple times right after the incident, but her complaint was never fully processed. She was threatened and coerced not to pursue it, and left to withstand public humiliation when her story was made public against her intention,” the team said.

The alleged assailant is the victim’s colleague, also an Air Force master sergeant identified by his surname Jang. He is accused of sexually assaulting the victim on the way back to their base after an off-duty gathering. He also allegedly threatened to harm her if she testified or asked others to testify against him.

The victim’s superiors -- a senior master sergeant and two warrant officers -- also face legal action.

The senior master sergeant allegedly pressured the victim and her husband not to press charges, while the two warrant officers are accused of sexually assaulting the victim last year. One of them allegedly tried to cover up the incident because the off-duty gathering that night had flouted social distancing rules.

The chief of the military police unit at the victim’s base is accused of having sat on the complaint despite incriminating evidence against Jang. He has since been fired and is now under questioning.

His superior who oversees the entire Air Force military police has been suspended from duty and will stand trial for making false statements, as he reported the victim’s death to the Air Force chief without mentioning the complaint. The military police chief faces separate disciplinary actions.

The Air Force chief earlier stepped down to take responsibility for mishandling the sex crime probe.

Meanwhile, the military prosecutors who were supposed to handle the victim’s complaint and her public defender are facing indictment. The prosecutors opened an investigation only after the victim took her life, while the public defender allegedly offered little counsel and wrongfully disclosed her identity.

A communications officer who is alleged to have openly shared the sexual assault allegations and retraumatized the victim upon her transfer to his base after the incident is facing a defamation suit and, separately, disciplinary actions from the military.

But the joint investigation team has faced criticism for being too soft on its members involved in sex crimes. The military policy chief who oversees the entire military police including that of the Air Force has only received strong warnings; the chief prosecutor at the Air Force has not been brought in for questioning.

The team said it will carry on its thorough investigation as it closely works with the civilian-led coalition of military experts who have been called in to put an end to the military practice that many say trivializes human rights and sexual assault complaints within the military.

The victim’s family expressed “strong regrets” over the interim report and called on the ministry to run a more thorough investigation, according to a local media outlet. They said the investigation falls short of delivering on the promise the defense minister made, which was an exhaustive probe followed by strong punishment.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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