Korean woman held in Mexico may be innocent

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Korean woman held in Mexico may be innocent

Accused of running a prostitution ring, a 38-year Korean woman named Yang Hyun-jung has been held in a Mexican prison for over eight months, but growing evidence suggests she has been wrongfully accused and that the Korean diplomatic office there has failed to protect her.

Yang, a designer for pet clothing, was apprehended by Mexican police on Jan. 15 at a karaoke bar in Mexico City. The bar was owned by the fiance of her younger sister, with whom she went to Mexico two months earlier.

Yang and her younger sister went to the North American country in November to see the sister’s fiance, a man surnamed Lee, and to travel. Yang was helping Lee by greeting customers at the counter.

On the night of Jan. 15, local law enforcement officials stormed the bar with pistols and took custody of five Korean female karaoke workers, three Mexicans and two Korean customers. Police said they were tipped off that Yang was running a prostitution ring by abducting Korean workers there and forcing them to provide sexual services.

But testimonies emerged later from Korean workers who were released from questioning that the Mexican investigators were very coercive during their probe, depriving them of sleep, water and food. One of the released workers reportedly said that she was forced to sign a statement that said she was made to sell her body and was held by Yang.

Following their release, the five Korean workers filed a petition to the Korean government, saying they had refused to sign the statement for over 30 hours because facts in it were not true, but that a Korean consul had told them to sign the paper, saying Mexican prosecutors had informed him that they would correct the facts in a second statement and release Yang.

But the workers’ statement, which they now disavow, was sent to a court and Yang was transferred to a prison in Mexico City.

As things unfolded, the consul lodged a complaint with the Mexican government, protesting that they had not kept their word. In an interview with a local newspaper, published by the Korean community there, the diplomat said his office would clear Yang of all charges and win her release, vowing to protect Korean citizens.

But as criticism grew over his office’s failure to address the issue properly, he suddenly changed his position, saying Yang committed a grave crime by exploiting karaoke workers without paying them.

Hong Geum-pyo, a businessman there who is running a campaign to win Yang’s release, said she would not have been put in prison had Korean diplomats thoroughly investigated the case in the first place.

In a text message sent to the JoongAng Ilbo, the Korean consul denied he had pressured Korean workers to sign the statement, but that he had merely relayed a message from Mexican prosecutors that Yang would be released once they approved the statement.

“What is important now is that we do our best to make Yang walk out of prison as early as possible,” the consul wrote in the message.

Yang is fighting a legal battle on the grounds that she has been wrongfully imprisoned and that investigation procedures by Mexican prosecutors were not in accordance with due process. Much of the evidence submitted by local prosecutors is said to have been rejected by a local court. The JoongAng Ilbo discovered that a woman who the Mexican prosecutors said had tipped them off about the case does not in fact exist.

“I miss my mom as Chuseok holiday is now approaching,” Yang told the JoongAng Ilbo in a phone interview from jail. “I want to go home with truth being told.”

A parliamentary committee of foreign affairs has decided to look into the case during its audit on diplomatic offices on the American continent scheduled later this month.

BY KO SUNG-PYO [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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