Lenient sex crime ruling enrages the public

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Lenient sex crime ruling enrages the public

Tens of thousands of angry Internet users signed an online petition demanding the impeachment of a judge who handed down suspended sentences to four men convicted of incest.

This posted comment is typical:

“Imagine if you have a daughter with a disability and she was sexually violated by her grandfather and uncles for seven years. Can you still let them walk away?”

The poster, Goeungwangsun, signed the petition on the Agora discussion forum on Daum, one of the nation’s biggest portal sites.

On Nov. 20, the Cheongju District Court convicted a grandfather and three uncles of a teenage girl of sexually molesting her from August 2001 to May of this year. But Judge Oh Jun-keun handed down a three-year suspended sentence to the 87-year-old grandfather and two uncles, 57 and 42, for raping the now-16-year-old girl, who has mental and developmental disabilities.

Another uncle, 39, was given an 18-month suspended sentence. Judge Oh said his involvement was relatively minor.

“It is inhumane for the accused to have repeatedly violated the young victim, who is their relative, by treating her as a tool to release their sexual desires,” Judge Oh said in his ruling. “It is necessary to hand down serious punishment taking into account the victim’s grave mental state.”

The judge, however, said he showed leniency because the relatives, not the parents, have raised the victim despite economic hardship.

“Taking into consideration her disabilities, she needs continuous support and help from the accused, who are her family members,” the judge ruled. “Some of the accused are aged and ill, so it is difficult for them to endure prison life. Therefore, I suspend their prison terms.”

While the court ruled that the family members, despite their convictions, should continue to provide for the victim, the Cheongju office of the Women with Disabilities Empathy, a rights group, is providing her shelter.

The North Chungcheong Police, who first investigated the accused, said the case was gruesome. When police disclosed the outcome of their investigation last August, they said the men showed no remorse during questioning. Authorities said the victim’s father was also suspected of incest, but the statute of limitations had expired, so they had no choice but to drop the case against him.

Police said they began the investigation following a tip from a civic group.

Four days after the court’s verdict, the Cheongju District Prosecutors’ Office appealed the case.

Prosecutors initially sought five-years’ imprisonment each for the grandfather and two of the uncles. They also sought a three-year prison term for the third uncle.

“The suspended sentences were far too light,” a prosecution official said on condition of anonymity. “We will include more evidence and testimony in our appeal.”

While the appeal is ongoing, public rage showed no sign of subsiding.

On Daum’s Agora message board, an Internet user started a movement to collect 30,000 signatures to demand the impeachment of Judge Oh.

“I cannot stand the fact that someone like Oh is a judge in my country, receiving a salary paid with my tax money,” wrote Chicheonsa, the petition’s initiator. “After the signature drive ends, I will send the Agora members’ wishes to the Cheongju District Court.”

The signature drive is scheduled to end on Dec. 19. As of 5:20 p.m. yesterday, 16,021 have signed.

The JoongAng Daily tried to interview Judge Oh, but he declined to comment.

While an angry public joined the signature drive, it has no legal standing to impeach the judge. Under the Constitution, one-third of sitting lawmakers must agree to submit a bill of impeachment. After that, a vote of over half of the lawmakers is needed to actually remove a judge.

Some rights groups and progressive political parties have decried what they consider to be the judge’s poor understanding about the nature of a sex crime.

The Democratic Labor Party issued a statement on Nov. 25, urging the appeals court to review the case.

“When a sexual crime is committed, the top priority is separating the victim from the offender,” the party said in the statement. “But the ruling proved that the court has no interest in the disabled victim.”

The party complained that the court said the offenders should continue to provide shelter for the victim. “Is it normal that a victim should live in the custody of sexual predators?” the party asked, warning that the crimes will likely be repeated.

“This is just unacceptable,” said Lee Eun-sang, deputy director of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center. “Heavier punishments are handed down when a sex crime victim is a family member or a child or a disabled person. And in this case the victim fits all three categories. Yet the judge still spared the offenders from jail.”

Lee said the judge’s supposed ignorance about sex crimes is a serious issue. “The judge suspended the sentences, noting that they have raised the victim while facing economic hardship, but abuse of power is a common element of a sex crime,” Lee said. “It was easier for them to sexually violate her because they had the power of raising her, and they abused such a relationship. But the judge simply failed to see it.”

While it is not the first time that a judge has faced public criticism for handing down lenient sentences, the Supreme Court has tried to establish a punishment yardstick for certain crimes.

As a part of judicial reform, the nation’s highest court has established a sentencing committee and created sentencing standards for bribery, sex crimes and murder.

For the sex crimes, the committee said no sex offender should escape a jail term, and those assaulting a victim 13 years of age or younger should face the toughest sentences.

According to the standards, the recommended sentence for rape should be imprisonment for between two to four years, but punishment for raping a child would carry a five- to seven-year sentence.

The commission also eliminated many mitigating factors when sentencing sexual predators. Heavier punishment should be handed down for premeditated crimes and offenses against particularly vulnerable victims, while punishment can be lightened when an offender voluntarily surrenders or reaches a settlement with the victim.

The commission held a public hearing on its standards on Nov. 24 and will create another list of standardized sentences for robbery, embezzlement, breach of trust, perjury and making false accusations.

According to Lee of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center, the Supreme Court’s guidelines give too much room for a judge to interpret the law and reduce sentences.

“Sentencing in Korea had no clear-cut standards,” Lee said. “The punishment manual should include clear standards for suspending sentences. Specific reasons for leniency should be detailed.”

By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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