Soldier abuse case bounced back

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Soldier abuse case bounced back

South Korea’s highest court Thursday sent a murder case involving five soldiers back to a lower court, saying that there should be more solid ground to prove that three of them intentionally murdered a private through physical abuse.

A 27-year old sergeant surnamed Lee was sentenced to 35 years in jail for the murder of a conscript identified as Private First Class Yoon, then 22, after days of physical abuse in April 2014. The case shocked the nation by shedding light on a pervasive culture of physical abuse ? often approaching torture -- among conscripted soldiers in South Korea’s military.

Three other soldiers were also convicted of murder and sentenced to 12 years behind bars. Their convictions were challenged by the Supreme Court. A fifth soldier was convicted of abetting the murder and sentenced to 10 years.

“While it is understandable that Sergeant Lee was convicted of murder,” the Supreme Court ruled, “it is hard to judge if the three other defendants, including Sergeant Ha, should also be found guilty of homicide. There was a fault in deliberations in an earlier ruling that convicted the three of the same charge as Lee’s.”

The court took into account the fact that Sergeant Ha and two other defendants had been coerced to join the abuse against the victim by Sergeant Lee and tried to save him when he lost consciousness on March 31, 2014.

The Supreme Court found Sergeant Lee guilty of murder but decided to return his case to a lower court because some additional charges against him were deemed to be unconstitutional.

The fifth defendant, a Staff Sergeant identified as Yoo, 24, was a medical officer. He was found guilty of abetting the killing by neglecting to report the abuse to officers above him.

A legal point deliberated by the highest court was whether Sergeant Lee and the three other soldiers had kept abusing Private First Class Yoon with the knowledge that doing so could lead to his death. The ruling Thursday suggest the court thinks more evidence is needed to back up the claim that the three soldiers murdered the young soldier intentionally.

After Yoon died on April 7, 2014, Army investigators discovered that he had endured brutal physical abuse and sexual humiliation during his less than four months in the military. The victim, who enlisted in December 2013, was assigned to serve in the 28th Infantry Division as a medical officer in March following training at a boot camp.

Yoon’s death in April last year sent chills across the country, especially among parents with children performing mandatory military service that lasts from about 21 to 24 months.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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