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Ex-governor gets prison on appeal of South Korean #MeToo case

By Yonhap News Agency
Former South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in one of South Korea's high-profile #MeToo cases. File Photo by Jung Ui-chel/EPA-EFE
Former South Chungcheong Gov. An Hee-jung was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison in one of South Korea's high-profile #MeToo cases. File Photo by Jung Ui-chel/EPA-EFE

SEOUL, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- An appeals court has found a former governor of South Chungcheong Province guilty of sexually abusing his then secretary, reversing the highly debated acquittal by a lower court in one of South Korea's high-profile #MeToo cases.

The Seoul High Court sentenced An Hee-jung to 3 1/2 years in prison Friday, ruling he is guilty of nine counts of the 10 charges that include abuse of power and sexual molestation.

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The court took the 54-year-old into custody immediately after the ruling.

An, once considered a potential presidential candidate of the liberal bloc, was indicted in April for allegedly forcing his former secretary to have sex with him and groping her multiple times between the middle of 2017 and early 2018.

The lower court found him not guilty in August last year, citing insufficient evidence.

Overturning the August verdict, the appellate court ruled Friday that the testimony of Kim Ji-eun, the defendant, was sufficiently consistent and credible to be accepted as evidence to prove the charges against An.

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"The victim's testimony, the only direct evidence in this case, is very detailed and descriptive in terms of consistently recounting the words and actions" between An and Kim, the court said.

It recognized Kim's statements as valid based on her experience and true emotion, dismissing the defendant's claim that the sex was consensual. It also agreed with the plaintiff that Kim had scant reason to falsely accuse him and that An abused his authority as her boss to silence her after committing the crime.

"The fact that the defendant continued to say 'I am sorry' to the victim, almost every time after each assault, all the more backs up the plaintiff's claim that the sexual intercourse was against her will," the court said.

Kim's lawyer thanked the court on her behalf for "the right decision made based on truth," adding that she will fight out the battle to the end and continue her support for other sexual assault victims.

The case became known early last year, after Kim came forward with the revelation in a cable TV news interview. It led to a torrent of similar allegations by women claiming to be victims of sexual violence by influential men in South Korea's #MeToo movement.

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An stepped down as governor in March, days after Kim's interview.

The lower court's ruling drew public ire and sparked strong calls from women's groups demanding the court overturn the ruling in the appeal.

An did not speak as he was taken from the court room into custody, but he appealed the court decision as soon as the ruling was given.

Lee Kang-joo, a lawyer representing An, protested the court ruling, calling it "unfair."

"The appeals court, it seems, failed to make a ruling that considers the entire context, but focused only on the victim's testimonies," Lee told reporters immediately after the ruling. "The court made the decision only based on the consistency of the victim's testimonies."

He also protested the sentence as too heavy.

But the decision was strongly welcomed by women's rights activists who gathered at the court in support of Kim.

"It is a reasonable, fair ruling that rightfully reflects the purpose of the enactment of [law] on sexual violence based on hierarchical power," activists from 158 women's rights and human rights groups said. The groups formed a joint committee dedicated to supporting Kim in the sexual assault case.

Women "cannot get out of this forceful, chronically [male] assailant-centered society only with [the help of] the judiciary," the activists said as they cheered and clapped in a press conference after the ruling. "The whole society should bring the social structure and culture into question and respond to 'MeToo' calls," they said.

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