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(LEAD) Army to add sexual abuse charges in soldier death case

2014/08/05 14:51

SEOUL, Aug. 5 (Yonhap) -- The military prosecution will bring an additional charge of sexual assault against one of the six soldiers accused of harassing and beating their junior conscript to death, an Army officer said Tuesday.

On April 6, the 23-year-old Army private first class, surnamed Yoon, died after allegedly being hit in the chest by his colleagues at their barracks while eating some snacks. The assault caused a piece of food to obstruct his airway, leading him to die of asphyxiation.

Four of the alleged assailants were indicted three days after his death on manslaughter charges, with the others -- a staff sergeant and a private first class -- charged with assault.

"We decided to modify the indictment to bring sexual harassment charges against a sergeant surnamed Lee," said the senior Army officer said, requesting anonymity.

"On the day of the incident, Lee allegedly forced Yoon to apply ointment to his sexual organ. Lee told the prosecution he did it because Yoon responded to him in a nasty way," he added.

The prosecution has also been mulling whether to apply "murder charges against the four suspects rather than manslaughter, and will make a final decision within a week," according to the officer.

For more than a month after being dispatched to the 28th Infantry Division, Yoon allegedly had been beaten almost 100 times per day, according to the prosecution. The suspects also often forced him to stay awake until 3 a.m., hold a horse-riding stance for hours during the night and lick their spit from the ground.

A court ruling had been due on Tuesday, but the prosecution asked for a delay in the order to investigate the matter further, according to the defense ministry. The date of the first court hearing has yet to be fixed.

The case had been dealt with by a court of the 28th Division but was transferred to the court under the Army's Third Corps headquarters, it noted.

Army draftees indicted on charges of beating their junior soldier to death in April get in a car in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, after standing trial in a military court on Aug. 5, 2014. (Yonhap)

Army draftees indicted on charges of beating their junior soldier to death in April get in a car in Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province, after standing trial in a military court on Aug. 5, 2014. (Yonhap)

Amid mounting suspicions that the military has tried to cover up the case, the defense ministry launched an audit on Tuesday into "all those involved," including the division, the Army headquarters and the Joint Chiefs of Staff," defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told a regular briefing.

The tragic incident belatedly came to light last week after a local media report and a press conference by a civic group, which revealed Yoon's suffering for more than a month from March.

"Defense Minister Han Min-koo instructed the audit to get to the bottom of the case and to erase all suspicions ... including whether there were any problems in the military's reporting structure," Kim added.

Testifying before parliament on Monday, Han admitted that he had been kept in the dark about the incident until the media report.

The shocking death, the latest in a series of incidents that have hit South Korea's military in recent months, has further tarnished its image and again laid bare the chronic problem of bullying in barracks.

In late June, an Army sergeant who had been bullied by his comrades went on a shooting spree at a border outpost on the east coast, killing five soldiers and wounding seven others.

All able-bodied South Korean men are subject to compulsory military service for about two years in a country facing North Korea across the heavily fortified border. Conscripts take up the bulk of the military's 690,000 active servicemen.

graceoh@yna.co.kr

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