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Special counsel gets 70 days to probe Air Force sexual abuse scandal

Ahn Mi-young, third from left, was appointed to lead the probe into the Air Force sexual abuse scandal that led to the suicide of late Master Sgt. Lee Ye-ram. (Yonhap)
Ahn Mi-young, third from left, was appointed to lead the probe into the Air Force sexual abuse scandal that led to the suicide of late Master Sgt. Lee Ye-ram. (Yonhap)

The special counsel investigation into the Air Force sexual abuse scandal officially kicked off Tuesday, more than a year since the victim -- 23-year-old Master Sgt. Lee Ye-ram -- took her own life.

Ahn Mi-young, the prosecutor tasked with leading the probe, told reporters outside the team’s office in western Seoul that the military was facing “mounting allegations of mishandling sexual abuse complaints and engaging in victim-blaming.”

“Through the probe I hope to make sure that no similar tragedy happens again in our armed forces,” she said. “Our deepest condolences go out to Lee’s family.”

Lee was kissed and groped by a male colleague, a master sergeant known by his surname Chang, in the car ride to their base from a group dinner and drinks that took place March 2 last year. She reported to her superiors what happened immediately, but she was snubbed.

Over the following 81 days, Lee was met with pressure from superiors to stay silent and not press charges against Chang, as well as repeated inaction from the military police and prosecution.

Her superiors had told her that she, along with the rest of the unit, would be punished for violating COVID-19 health protocols that evening if she were to come forward. Chang had tried to convince her to drop the complaint by threatening to kill himself in a text message conversation. In one text message, Chang’s father had told her: “My son is my pride. I want to see my son finish his service honorably.”

Then on May 21 that year, after the military prosecution decided once again not to commence an investigation, Lee died by suicide. Air Force members involved in Lee’s case, including Chang, were not called in for questioning until a public broadcaster broke the news after her death on May 31.

The Air Force prosecution’s internal deliberative committee, however, recommended against bringing an indictment against those who were in charge of the primary investigation in a conclusion reached in August last year.

In December, Chang was given nine years in prison for sexual harassment causing bodily injury, among other charges, in a court martial. A month later, two Air Force colonels were sentenced to suspended jail terms for falsifying internal reports on Lee’s death to cover up the sexual offenses.

Ensuing witness accounts revealed that over four years of her service at the Air Force, Lee was sexually abused on at least three separate occasions.

Ahn’s dozen-member team, which has 70 days to look into the case, cannot revisit charges that have already been indicted by the military prosecution or tried at a court martial.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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