The Korea Herald


Key figures in Air Force suicide case avoid charges

By Choi Si-young

Published : Oct. 7, 2021 - 18:05

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The father of an Air Force master sergeant who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by her colleagues mourns her death. (Yonhap) The father of an Air Force master sergeant who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by her colleagues mourns her death. (Yonhap)
Fifteen service members linked to the suicide of an Air Force master sergeant who claimed to have been sexually assaulted will be indicted, the Ministry of National Defense said Thursday, ending a monthslong investigation.

But the 10 suspects accused of botching the initial investigation or bullying the victim when she was relocated upon the incident will not stand trial, because little evidence was found to press charges, the ministry said.

The suspects include military police, prosecutors and the chief prosecutor at the Air Force -- the first responders who allegedly sat on her complaint -- as well as her superiors who allegedly bullied her when she was transferred to their base after the assault had taken place.

The suspects will face disciplinary action by the ministry, along with 28 other service members, 15 of whom will soon stand trial. The abuser accused of sexually assaulting the victim and her immediate superior who allegedly tried to silence her are already on trial.

“The initial investigation went sideways and we don’t dispute that,” a senior Defense Ministry official said, referring to a probe the Air Force opened in March when the victim filed a complaint. The Defense Ministry took over the case in June, following her suicide in May.

Circumstantial evidence was not enough to pursue criminal charges, the official added, referring to media reports earlier that had pointed to new incriminating evidence that the ministry might have overlooked.

The ministry was criticized for being soft on the abusers as it dragged its feet on questioning senior officers, such as the chief Air Force prosecutor, and adopting reform measures recommended by an advisory panel.

The sex abuse case prompted the National Assembly to overhaul the military justice system, forcing the military to hand over civilian authority power to investigate and rule on cases involving service members. The military courts were reduced to handling initial trials only.

Last week, the Air Force introduced its own reform, setting up a crime unit at its headquarters. The unit will take away military police power to investigate crimes, as they are often accused of going easy on abusers among their own.

Meanwhile, the victim’s family said the military should name a special prosecutor to investigate her death, noting the prosecutor should be a civilian. The military appointed a military prosecutor to run the investigation. But it has been neither thorough nor effective, according to the family.

“We’ve already done the investigation with a special prosecutor. I really can’t say if there will be a do-over, with a civilian leading the charge,” a Defense Ministry official said.

While the ministry plans to open disciplinary proceedings, many expect the action will only amount to warnings by commanders, because that has been the norm for the past year in cases involving rights violations within the military.